[Relevant documents:Fourth Report from the International Development Committee, Session 2007-08,on Reconstructing Afghanistan, HC 65-I and -II, and the Government response, HC 509.
Helicopter capability: oral and written evidence taken by the Defence Committee on 19 May, 2 June and 7 July 2009 (part of HC 434).]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The military operation in Afghanistan has now lasted for nearly eight years and has claimed more lives than the conflict in Iraq. It is important that we regularly discuss the situation there, and that is why the Government have scheduled this debate today.
Whatever the divisions in the debate, I know that in one regard the House is as united as the people of Wootton Bassett were on Tuesday. We are united in the belief that each and every one of our military personnel is a credit to the country, that each and every one represents a personal story of courage and bravery beyond the call of duty and, as we saw on Tuesday, that each and every loss is a source of raw grief that should never be forgotten.
Today sees the funeral of Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, who was well known to a number of right hon. and hon. Members in this House. I pay tribute today to all of our soldiers, to the diplomats and aid workers who work alongside them, to our allies and partners who also operate in such difficult and dangerous circumstances, and to the many Afghan and Pakistani soldiers and civilians who have lost their lives in the defence of their country.
The defining mission in Afghanistan is simply stated: to ensure that, with al-Qaeda having been driven out of Afghanistan, it cannot come back under the safe umbrella of renewed Taliban rule.
The Prime Minister set out this mission in this House in December 2007 and in April 2009. It is the mission agreed by all NATO countries, which made this vow at the Bucharest summit last year:
“Neither we nor our Afghan partners will allow extremists and terrorists...to regain control of Afghanistan or use it as a base for terror”.
The mission is also at the heart of the US strategy document published in February. In President Obama’s words:
“And if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban—or allows al Qaeda to go unchallenged—that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.”
The purpose of rehearsing this unity of mission is twofold—first, to underline the self-interest as well as the realism of our objectives and, secondly, to emphasise that this is a shared operation. The strategy is shared, so are the resources, and I will return to that point later.
The Foreign Secretary says that this is a shared responsibility, but many people in both the UK and the US are concerned that only a small number of countries bear what is a huge responsibility. Clearly, defeating terrorism benefits all countries, so what more can he do to encourage other countries present in Afghanistan to take more responsibility?
That is a good point. We have discussed so-called “burden sharing” on a number of occasions in this House. There are three aspects to the matter—the numbers of people put into Afghanistan, where they are put, and how much civilian resource is devoted to complement the work that they do. We support the hon. Gentleman’s call for burden sharing, and the increased number of Polish, German, French and Australian personnel deployed since we last debated this issue here is noteworthy and should be recorded. That is not to say that the drive for burden sharing is over, and since we last talked in this House there has of course been the very large increase in the US contribution. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the burden needs to be shared, but there are some encouraging signs. A number of the 41 nations are doing a very large amount of the work, and we need to continue to make the case that more should join us, on both the military and the civilian sides.
Surely the risk is that, because the burden is not being shared properly, a two-tier NATO might emerge, in which some countries are willing to face the mud—or, in this case, the sand and the bullets—but others are not. Some countries send their troops to operate under NATO command, but others send theirs subject to such caveats that their effectiveness is very substantially prejudiced.
That is an important point. In truth, as NATO has grown, there has been much greater diversity in both the assets and the roles that different NATO countries bring and play. I continue to defend NATO enlargement, but obviously we must continue to ensure that the responsibilities of NATO membership are understood properly.
The Secretary of State will know that we share the Government’s objectives for the mission in Afghanistan. However, I want to be clear about what he said about the Taliban. Clearly we cannot allow the Taliban to become the Afghanistan Government again, but does he think that we need to defeat them completely, or find a strategy to contain them so that they cannot be the threat that they have been in the past?
I like to think of the mission, which I have described, then the strategy and then the resources to address that. I shall address the hon. Gentleman’s question about strategy in my following points. There is a widely shared basic agreement in this House that the strategy needs to be a military one and include governance, development and Afghan-Pakistan co-operation. As I shall show when I talk about governance, the reintegration of Afghans who are currently fighting with the Taliban but who are not ideologically committed to al-Qaeda is an important part of our policy. I absolutely assure him that I shall address that in some detail.
Order. I thank the Secretary of State for making that comment. A huge number of hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, and it would be very helpful if Front-Bench spokesmen could take a reasonable amount of time, but not too long.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall rattle through my speech at a faster rate.
Progress in the mission that I have described has four key elements that deserve special mention, the first of which is military. The goal is clear: for the Afghans to be able to defend themselves. However, until they can, we must help them, often on foot, but always in danger. Offensive military action, of the kind that I shall describe when I detail Operation Panther’s Claw, is needed to root out the insurgents who continue to pose a major threat to the legitimate Afghan Government. Meanwhile, training, mentoring and development of Afghan security forces—2,000 people a month are currently joining the national army—is a core building block of a sustainable Afghan state.
The second key element is governance. Effective, legitimate Afghan governance, working with the confidence of local communities, to help them to shape their own future, with consistency, not corruption, at its heart, is the best antidote to the insurgency. I shall say a word about the elections later, but for now it is vital to be clear that effective governance requires space for all Afghans to have a political voice, including many of the Pashtuns who currently fight alongside the Taliban for protection or political power, but who actually belong inside the political system. That reintegration, or reconciliation, about which I talked in February, is not an alternative to military pressure, but its vital counterpart. It also needs to be led by the Afghan Government and supported by us, with the development, by Afghans, of systems of justice and dispute resolution that respond to the desire for predictable and non-corrupt justice, to which the Taliban so often—and so often brutally—respond.
The third key element is development. If the Afghan Government are to keep the support of the Afghan population, they need to respond to its needs and deliver meaningful economic and social progress. In the end, the Afghans want health care, electricity, clean water, jobs and economic development, alongside fair justice. In all those spheres, they need our help. The fourth key element is the link between Afghanistan and Pakistan, because the militants flow freely across the 1,600 mile border between the two countries. I shall not dwell at length on this today, but a comprehensive approach based on security, governance and development is vital in Pakistan too. In the past two months, Pakistan’s fight has entered a critical phase, as I saw for myself last week. In May, in response to Taliban incursions into Swat and Buner provinces, the Pakistani military launched a major offensive and has now re-established its authority in the Swat valley, Buner, Lower Dir and Malakand, at the heavy price of several hundred Pakistani soldiers and some 2.4 million displaced people who are now beginning to return home. The military focus is now turning to Waziristan, including the leader of Pakistan’s Taliban Baitullah Mehsud, who has claimed responsibility for a series of terrorist attacks against the Pakistani state. He is close to al-Qaeda and poses a dangerous threat to Pakistani and regional stability.
As we hold this debate today, we have for the first time mutually reinforcing strategies on either side of the Durand line. There is also co-operation between the international security assistance force, and Afghan and Pakistani forces across the Durand line, as I saw for myself in a joint operation centre at the Khyber Pass in April
At the beginning of the Secretary of State’s speech, he made the point that, in his opinion, al-Qaeda was no longer a threat in Afghanistan and had been beaten. Where is the evidence to support that statement, and is al-Qaeda not part of the problem in Pakistan as well?
I said that it had been driven out of Afghanistan and into Pakistan. The important thing is that we know that Taliban rule provided an umbrella and incubator for al-Qaeda. We also know that the 1,600 mile—2,600 km—border is porous in many places, which allows the flow across that border. I think that this is an ongoing struggle, until Afghan governance can be established on the Afghan side and the writ of the Pakistani authorities can run on the Pakistani side.
Has the Secretary of State observed over the past eight years that every surge of troops has resulted in a surge of targets for the Taliban, and a surge of deaths? Only seven British soldiers had died up to 2006, only two them in battle. Can he not see that the reason why the Taliban are killing our soldiers is that they see us as aliens, the Ferengi, in their country, and that they want to die—in many cases, it is their dearest wish—in a jihad? We have given our soldiers an impossible, suicidal task.
I do not agree with that. Our soldiers represent a threat to the Taliban’s previously unhindered authority in the south. The ungoverned space of the south of Afghanistan now has, for the first time, an attempt to establish some kind of legitimate authority. So I am afraid that I do not share my hon. Friend’s view. The attempt to ensure that the southern part of Afghanistan is not a base for al-Qaeda, under Taliban authority, to use both to attack the rest of Afghanistan and us, is important.
Let me turn to Helmand, given its strategic location, which is the most dangerous province, accounting for a third of all security incidents in the country and a key part of Regional Command South. The majority of British troops are stationed there. Two major operations, one led by the UK, with Danish support, are now under way, so that some 70 per cent. of the population, in eight districts, come within Government control. Elections are possible in 10 of the 13 district centres. Operation Panther’s Claw involves UK troops fighting to clear the Taliban stronghold of Babaji between the provincial capital Lashka Gah and the economic centre of Gereshk, where Danish troops are stationed to provide security.
That is a critical operation, first because the Taliban presence in the region is severely restricting movement for the local population between those two towns, and secondly because it will bring a further 80,000 people back under the authority of elected government. Reports from the area are that previously ungoverned territory is being successfully cleared. The insurgents are not just taking casualties, but we are reducing their capacity to strike at us. Recently, a significant number of improvised explosive devices and components were uncovered at a processing factory containing approximately 750 kg of precursor chemicals. Our troops can now engage with the local population in previously inaccessible areas. These people should also be able to participate in the elections in August. Furthermore, work is under way to identify stabilisation and development projects.
Further south, a US-led operation seeks to take Khan Neshin, the last significant population centre in southern Helmand under Taliban control. We extend our deepest condolences to the families of 109 American personnel who have lost their lives this year, as well as to the six Ukrainians killed when their helicopter was shot down in Sangin earlier this week.
I shall make some progress on this point, and then we will see how we are doing for time. High-quality equipment is, of course, vital for our endeavours. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), will address in his winding-up speech any detailed questions about equipment that arise in the debate, but the following points are important.
Since the start of current operations, funding for urgent operational requirements has been used for significant improvements to force protection. That is all above and beyond the main defence budget. On my visits to Afghanistan, that investment has been highlighted by troops on the ground. It includes: first, money for key protective equipment, such as body armour and base protection kit; secondly, funding for 1,200 new vehicles, including 700 new and upgraded armoured vehicles further to improve protection against explosive devices; and, thirdly, money for helicopters. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told the House yesterday, we have increased the number of helicopters by more than 60 per cent. over the past two years, and we have increased the number of flying hours by 84 per cent. More will follow.
I just want to make a very important, different point; the hon. Gentleman should hang on. We are part of a coalition. We share the same facilities, and we share helicopters. All helicopters in southern Afghanistan are controlled by NATO’s Regional Command South headquarters at Kandahar airfield. They are a resource for us, as well as for other nations. Requests are prioritised and allocated, whether the assets or the request comes from the UK, the US, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia or Romania. Therefore it is normal that the UK has access to other nations’ helicopters, just as they have access to our hospital. That is the whole point of being part of a coalition.
I have listened carefully to what the Secretary of State has had to say. The Government keep repeating the line that there has been a 60 per cent. increase in helicopters over the past two years. I tell him that the people serving on the front line do not recognise that figure. Will he ensure that the Government make public their assumptions in coming up with the number of helicopters now, as compared to two years ago? If the Government insist on continuing not to do that in a fully public way, will they at least release that information to the Defence Committee?
I think that the hon. Gentleman answered his own question at the end, when he recognised that, for obvious reasons, we do not publish detailed numbers. I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham, has heard that point. The hon. Gentleman rightly did not name anyone who spoke to him to say that they did not recognise the increase in the number of helicopters; I am sure that if he contacts me or my hon. Friend with any of those details, they can be looked at, but that 60 per cent. increase is real, and the 84 per cent. increase in capacity is important, too.
Will the Secretary of State confirm whether the helicopter that is believed to have been shot down earlier this week, with the loss of eight lives, was a NATO helicopter, or was directly leased, if that is the right word, by the United Kingdom? I understand that it was a supply helicopter, and the insurgents may well have believed that it was a Chinook.
I think that the hon. Lady is referring to the six Ukrainians who lost their lives when their helicopter was shot down earlier this week. I do not want to trespass on to operational details. I think that it would be better if we considered what we are able to say publicly about that incident, and then referred to the matter at the end of the debate. There is some information, but it does not quite tally with what she suggested. I suggest that we seriously take on board her inquiry, but right hon. and hon. Members will know that there are good reasons why we do not go into details here.
I quite understood the point that the Prime Minister put to us yesterday: it takes time to convert helicopters that have been operating in Iraq to deal with the conditions in Afghanistan. However, what baffles me about the present situation is that it must surely have been obvious to the chiefs of staff and Defence Ministers some years ago, when we went into Afghanistan, that there would be a great demand for helicopters; the Russians had 30 of them shot down in their 10 years there. So why was there not a massive increase in production of helicopters some years ago, instead of a cut in the helicopter budget?
I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that there has been a significant increase in the number of helicopters being tailored for the Afghan mission. I also return to a point that I made: NATO has many hundreds of helicopters available in Afghanistan—we do not go into precise numbers—but they are a shared resource for all members of the coalition. That is an important point as we discuss how equipment is used to support our troops.
I have had regular discussions with my opposite number, the German Foreign Minister, about the German deployment. We have also talked to the Germans about the helicopter fund that has been set up. As the hon. Gentleman will know, there is a significant debate in this House about the caveats that a number of countries have about where their forces or assets are stationed. The answer to his question is yes, we do discuss with all Governments their contribution. On helicopters, I would want to refer to detailed notes about the precise nature of the discussions. He will know that the German troop numbers have been increased to, I think, 6,500. That has been the focus of the German debate.
We are taking our own measures to increase the number of helicopters because—[Interruption.] No, it is because it is obvious that helicopters are an important part of the battle plan. [Interruption.] No, we wanted to increase it by 60 per cent., and we wanted to increase capability as well. Helicopters are a useful and important resource. I think that there is no division in this House about the utility and importance of helicopters in Afghanistan. However, the tragic truth is that the soldiers on foot patrol in Sangin last Thursday were doing a job that was necessary, and they could not have been replaced by helicopters or other vehicles. That is important.
The Foreign Secretary has been rehearsing what is going on in Helmand in Operation Panther’s Claw. He will know well that that depends on our troops being in forward operating bases, or FOBs, which have to be reinforced, very often by helicopter. I have just returned from Afghanistan, and a lot of our troops were saying that they are not getting necessary supplies because the helicopters cannot bring those supplies up to the FOBs. Is that something that he recognises?
I recognise the extensive work that the hon. Gentleman has done on the issue. Before this debate, I checked on the southernmost part of Helmand that I have visited, Garmsir, which he will know well. A forward operating base was established there after the Americans cleared it out. The information that I got back was that Garmsir continued to make progress, not just with regard to the market but in the area of governance. That is the latest information that I had. I wanted to check, following my experience there. If he has information that he wants to pass to me or to my ministerial colleagues, of course we will accept that, but I have not had any information of the sort that he describes.
A sustainable strategy requires us to build the capacity of the Afghan security forces. A British battalion runs Army mentoring for the Afghan national army throughout Helmand, including in the US areas. Some 4,000 trained Afghan soldiers are now based in Helmand, 450 of them fighting alongside us in Operation Panther’s Claw. A sustainable strategy also needs follow-through on the civilian side. When our forces go into villages and districts in Helmand, they are followed by the Afghan national army and national police, and by civilian and military stabilisation staff, who work with local officials and tribal elders. We have doubled the number of civilian stabilisation staff in the country in the past year.
No, I will finish up now. The Helmand operation on the civilian side is run by the joint civil-military mission. It has British, American, Danish and Estonian civilian and military staff working alongside each other. The Department for International Development and the United States Agency for International Development have teams working closely together to create alternative livelihoods, including for former insurgents, and to reconstruct vital infrastructure.
I am most grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. He is being admirably brief and very generous in taking interventions. May I report to him that when the Defence Committee took evidence on the comprehensive approach last week, Lord Malloch-Brown, a Foreign Office Minister, made it clear that Ministers were still “on probation”—his words—in terms of the Government’s delivery of the comprehensive approach? There is no Cabinet secretariat for the comprehensive approach, no Cabinet Sub-Committee, and no sub-committee of the Ministerial Committee on National Security, International Relations and Development. How are the Government actually delivering the comprehensive approach, when Whitehall is simply not geared to deliver it?
There are two very clear answers to that. First, there is the Cabinet Committee structure, including Committees right up to the one that the Prime Minister chairs. Secondly and more importantly, however, as I said to the hon. Gentleman in our last such debate, the biggest proof of the joining up is the combined military-civilian mission in Helmand. That is where the joining up is most important; where civilian and military staff need to work closer together; and where the civilian and military staff need to work with the Afghan people. The proof of the joining up is in the area where it needs to make a difference, and in the end that is not in London, but in Helmand province.
Over the next few months, there are some critical milestones. In Afghanistan, as we try to build the capacity and legitimacy of its Government, the immediate priority is the elections on 20 August. Our objective is that these should be as credible, secure and inclusive as possible, not only because they will be the first Afghan-led elections since the 1970s, but because they will determine the political direction of the country for the next five years. Given the security and political situation in which Afghanistan finds itself today, none of that will be easy, but we are working with the UN, the EU, the US and the rest of the international community to give the Afghan people the best chance that we can of them expressing their will.
That is why the British Government have agreed to additional troop deployments—to help those who want to vote to do so safely—alongside international and Afghan election observers. All the time, we must remember that our aim is to split the insurgency. The Taliban foot-soldiers must be convinced that the Afghan Government will be in charge in the years to come and can provide the protection and security that they want.
As the objective of our mission is our own safety, the ultimate test is our own safety, but there are important proxies for progress. NATO forces have trained 90,000 army personnel and 80,000 Afghan police, and they are now working closely alongside the international troops and civilian staff. The number of poppy-free provinces jumped from six to 13 in 2007, and this year it rose again to 18, representing more than half the provinces in the country. Cultivation was down by 19 per cent. last year.
School attendance or basic health care are not the reasons why we are conducting military operations in Afghanistan, but they are down-payments to the people of Afghanistan, and the increases in the number of students, from 1 million in 2001 to 6 million today, and in the number of people living in districts with access to basic health care, from 10 per cent. of the country to more than 80 per cent. today, are the building blocks of legitimacy and support from the Afghan people.
The Afghan people and Government do not want the Taliban to come back. With our help, they can be prevented from doing so. That is in their interest and in ours, and that is what we must achieve.
Since we last held a debate about Afghanistan, on 5 February, 41 British soldiers have lost their lives on operations there, and, as the House will recall, three of those recently killed were just 18 years old. It is fitting for us to remember today, as the Foreign Secretary did in his speech, their sacrifices and their families, and to pay tribute to their selfless courage. My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), the shadow Defence Secretary, put it very well the other day, when he said:
“We are fortunate that in a society without conscription we have people courageous and committed enough to put their lives at risk voluntarily for the security of their country and their fellow citizens.”
As Members of Parliament, we should have the humility to recognise that the deployment of the British armed forces overseas ultimately rests on the consent and will of the British people, who make the sacrifices necessary to maintain those efforts; and it is therefore vital that the British public understand why we are in Afghanistan and support our aims there. That is why the recent public concern about British fatalities, and the questions of resourcing, should be of serious concern to all of us and, particularly, to Ministers.
We have occasional debates, as the Foreign Secretary said, and this one was announced on Monday after the recent casualties. However, I put it to Ministers that the Government would have done well to accept the proposal that we have consistently made over the past three years for regular, quarterly reports to Parliament on our objectives in Afghanistan, the benchmarks by which progress is measured and the success or otherwise in meeting those objectives and benchmarks. The Government speak occasionally of significant progress in Afghanistan, but the public and Parliament see little formal basis for such assessments other than assertions by Ministers. There would be greater public and parliamentary understanding of the situation if we had that regular updating of our objectives, a restatement of strategy, a reminder of the reasons for being there and a regular assessment of progress. It is not too late for the Government to institute such a quarterly arrangement, which, as I say, we have called for now for three years. Maintaining public support and understanding of our military and political efforts in Afghanistan is an important responsibility of government.
It is vital, too, that we are clear about what we are trying to do, and the Foreign Secretary was clear about that in his speech. We went into Afghanistan not out of choice, but out of necessity—to deny al-Qaeda the use of Afghanistan as a launch pad for training and planning attacks on western targets. It was a collective national purpose that was accepted by all parts of the House, and the consequences of failure are so serious for the whole region and the wider world that we have to do our utmost to make it work. So, although there have been what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition described yesterday as sometimes “lofty” and “vague” objectives over recent years, the Foreign Secretary has moved the Government towards defining our objectives in a more tightly drawn fashion. He said on the radio on Saturday that our objective is
“to ensure that Afghanistan can not again become an incubator for terrorism and a launching pad for attacks on us.”
He said something similar to that just now. In our last such debate, I put it that our purpose is
“to permit the people of Afghanistan to decide their own future in a way that enhances their security and livelihoods without presenting a danger to the rest of the world.”—[Official Report, 5 February 2009; Vol. 487, c.1044.]
I think that that is a fair assessment of what we are trying to do.
Osama bin Laden still has a safe haven in which to plan his attacks on the west, and the incubator for terrorism has moved. Can the right hon. Gentleman think of any way in which we can secure a military victory to ensure that that incubator for terrorism disappears? We have not made any progress in that area for the past eight years.
If the Afghan Government were functioning as we wanted them to, with the widespread consent and support of Afghan people throughout the country, and, if the writ of the Government of Pakistan ran properly through all its territory, we would be in a stronger position with regard to the problem that the hon. Gentleman raises. However, there is a fundamental disagreement about the issue, and I think that he has always been on the other side from the majority in this House. We should respect that view, but, for those of us who believe that it was necessary to go into Afghanistan, most of us believe also that it is still essential to make the mission work.
Does not my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) illustrate how he misunderstands the nature of the conflict? There will not be a victory parade on a given day, in a given place, for a given, defined objective of territory. But, as long as we are denying al-Qaeda the capacity and space to attack us in the west, and denying the Taliban the right to impose their will on the people of Afghanistan by terror, we are winning.
That is an accurate reflection of our objectives, but the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) was also right to point out that we have not achieved them yet. I agree with the hon. Gentleman on that, so the issue before us is how we go on to achieve them.
My right hon. Friend the Leader—
That is an important point—it is indeed a NATO operation. As has been shown in this debate, many of us would like some other NATO members to make a bigger military contribution; all parties in the House have called for that for years. The hon. Lady is right about that.
I want to finish the point about proper assessment and the benchmarking of progress. In his statement in April, the Prime Minister said that in September, after the Afghan elections, there would be a review of the appropriate troop levels and the United Kingdom effort in Afghanistan, and I hope that there will be such an assessment in the round. One area on which it should focus is whether the additional powers given to the United Nations special representative for Afghanistan in March last year have resulted in improved civil-military co-ordination on the ground; such co-ordination will be essential as Operation Panther’s Claw makes progress.
As things stand, Parliament has few means of monitoring progress on that essential area. To cite another example, it also has few means of monitoring the number of successful reconstruction projects completed in areas of UK responsibility. If there is to be a review in September, I hope that it will restate for the nation clear, tightly drawn, realistic objectives and restate and set out more clearly a strategy that includes sufficient attention to building Afghan capabilities, so that people in Britain and other NATO countries know that their troops will not be in Afghanistan for ever. I hope that that strategy will be agreed by all the principal allies now engaged in Afghanistan.
I want to press Ministers on three aspects of the Afghan campaign, and I shall try to do so briefly. They are troop numbers, helicopter capability and the follow-up to Operation Panther’s Claw. It follows logically from having the right strategy that we should be confident that we have the right number of troops in Afghanistan to meet our military objectives and that those troops are properly resourced. An extremely damaging perception has crept in over recent years. Ministers’ public assurances that our forces in Afghanistan will be given whatever they need are not upheld in reality. In the House this week, the Prime Minister said:
“I repeat that I have been reassured by commanders on the ground and at the top of the armed services that we have the manpower that we need for current operations.”—[Official Report, 13 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 29.]
But on a visit to Afghanistan this week, the Chief of the General Staff said that the Army needed more “boots on the ground” to secure areas and win the confidence of the Afghan people. That echoes his reported remarks in March that 2,000 extra troops were needed in Afghanistan and that elements of 12 Mechanised Brigade had been earmarked for Afghanistan. In contrast, the Prime Minister announced on 29 April a temporary increase of 700 in UK forces. In the debate in February, we asked Ministers to bear in mind the overstretch of the armed forces when evaluating any request for additional troops—not that we were aware of any of the military advice that was then being given. That overstretch remains a serious factor.
It has been suggested in the press that the Defence Secretary’s predecessor supported the deployment of 2,000 extra troops and that the United States was expecting the United Kingdom to deploy them. Indeed, it is said that of four options presented to Ministers, the deployment of 2,000 was clearly preferred among military commanders—something that the Government have never confirmed in public and of which the House has never been informed. However, the Prime Minister and Chancellor opted instead for an increase of 700, and for a tightly limited period.
When the Defence Secretary winds up the debate today, I hope that he will feel able to tell the House exactly what happened—what options were put in front of the Prime Minister and what criteria were used to reject the military advice to send 2,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. Ministers might have had valid reasons for rejecting the request. They might have decided to reject it because of the overstretch of the forces, because they thought that the military case had not been properly argued or because they did not want to accede to the request without other NATO countries increasing their forces. One can imagine reasons why they might make the decision, but it is important for them to explain those reasons frankly to the country, so that we can evaluate the policies of the Government on this matter. Ministers should explain the reasons for their decision.
In earlier debates, I have made the point that there should be a unity of command in a military sense for NATO forces in Afghanistan, but there should also be a clear unity of command within the Government in Britain, so that everyone can be clear about which Minister is primarily responsible for our strategy in Afghanistan. General Dannatt said this week:
“We’ve got to think through the way that we operate, the resources we’ve got, the numbers we’ve got…to make sure that we’re giving ourselves the…best chance of succeeding”.
That suggests that these things have not been thought through so far.
The House and the country need to know who in the Government is in charge of the war on a day-to-day basis and who makes sure all the time that the issues raised by General Dannatt are thought through. If no Minister is in charge of Government strategy in the round on a day-to-day basis, should that situation not be put right by the Prime Minister?
May I read to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s reply to a parliamentary question in which I asked him who is responsible for determining the UK’s strategy in Afghanistan? He said:
“I accept responsibility for UK strategy in Afghanistan. I refer the hon. Member to the statement I made to the House on 29 April”.—[Official Report, 4 June 2009; Vol. 493, c. 639W.]
That illustrates the point, in a way. Clearly, the Prime Minister is not going to spend his entire day, on a day-to-day basis, consumed by these matters, but there should be a Minister in the Government who does spend his or her time in that way. Of course this requires Ministers to work together, but it also requires a clear sense of ownership of the strategy and the problem, and that is not evident at the moment.
Everyone in this House, from whichever party, despises the Taliban and everything they stand for. However, is the right hon. Gentleman really telling us, and the public, that if enough troops and resources were available the Taliban would be decisively defeated, perhaps over the next eight years, and never surface again? Is there not a danger of misleading the public?
I do not think it is impossible for us to succeed. If the hon. Gentleman is asking whether I think it is possible that we could succeed on the basis of the objectives that I have been talking about and that the Foreign Secretary clearly shares, on behalf of the Government, I do think that. I do not write off the possibility of success. However, it requires not only the necessary resources but one or two other matters that I want to deal with briefly in the remainder of my remarks.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. In evidence given to the Defence Committee last week, we were told that the Secretaries of State of the three key Departments currently represented on the Treasury Bench meet once a month. They have no Cabinet secretariat, and there is no formal Cabinet sub-committee. We would be making fewer strategic and tactical mistakes if there were a single Minister with full-time responsibility for the war in Afghanistan.
As my hon. Friend will have gathered, I have a great deal of sympathy with that point. A situation such as this requires the regular sharing of all assessments, thoughts and knowledge by the senior Ministers involved—I did not know that that happened only once a month; if that is true, it should be far more often—and a particular Minister who is responsible for the day-to-day concerns of this campaign.
Having covered troop numbers and ministerial direction, I want to ask Ministers about what has become the vexed public issue of helicopter numbers. Ministers have said repeatedly that that issue has been addressed, but it is hard to dispel the impression that that is not the case, particularly when only yesterday the Chief of the General Staff had to borrow a US helicopter to visit troops in Afghanistan. We recognise, of course, that up to 14 Merlin helicopters should be in service by the end of the year and that eight additional Chinook helicopters that are undergoing conversions should be available next year—although it is extraordinary that those Chinooks were delivered eight years ago and have not been in service in all that time. However, even if the numbers will be increased by the end of the year, that does not excuse the fact that now, while a major offensive operation is under way, not enough has already been done.
In the Defence Committee report published today, its Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), says:
“It seems to us that operational commanders in the field today are unable to undertake potentially valuable operations because of the lack of helicopters for transportation around the theatre of operations.”
Just as worryingly, the summary of the report states:
“Helicopter capability is being seriously undermined by the shortage of helicopters…capable of being deployed in support of operations overseas. We believe that the size of the fleet is an issue, and are convinced that the lack of helicopters is having adverse consequences for operations today and, in the longer term, will severely impede the ability of the UK Armed Forces to deploy.”
That is an extremely concerning finding by an all-party Select Committee in a unanimous report, and it merits a considered response from the Defence Secretary.
I will not give away to the hon. Gentleman again, if he will forgive me, because other Members wish to speak.
It is not as though this problem had not been noticed for a long time. My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring, from within days of becoming shadow Secretary of State for Defence in December 2005, has been going on and on about the problem. He said on 15 December that year that the “most pressing requirements” were to do with
“shortfalls in the helicopter lift capability that is essential to our activity in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.”—[Official Report, 15 December 2005; Vol. 440, c. 1467.]
In October 2007, he told the House:
“At a time when our troops are facing a shortage of lift capacity in both Iraq and Afghanistan, that decision was astonishingly complacent”.—[Official Report, 9 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 208.]
He was referring to the decision to reduce the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion. He has been warning about the matter for many years, and it is not as though it had suddenly become evident that it is a problem. The Government’s performance on this matter really has not been satisfactory, and it is no wonder that there is widespread criticism across the media and across the country of what they have done with regard to helicopters. People deserve a better explanation, and I hope that they will get it at the end of the debate.
The third issue on which I wish to press Ministers is the follow-up to Operation Panther’s Claw. We have become familiar with a cycle in Afghanistan that is at the root of many of our difficulties. Territory is won by valiant armed forces after fierce fighting and the Taliban are driven out, but that is not followed by a swift wave of co-ordinated development, delivery of services and embedding of alternative livelihoods. That is not only because the international aid agencies are unable to work effectively in insecure environments but because the overall reconstruction effort in Afghanistan has been mired in duplication and confusion.
General McChrystal, the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, recently said that the strategy was
“to try to protect the people by getting amongst the people: what we call shape, clear, hold, and build. But the idea is that after we clear an area from insurgents, we’ll hold it with security forces—Afghan and American—and then we’ll start development projects. That's the ‘build.’”
I hope that Ministers will explain at the end of the debate whether they are confident that while UK and US forces are clearing territory, the succeeding two elements of the strategy are this time definitely in place. They are absolutely fundamental to its success. Our armed forces are giving their all, and in many cases giving their lives, and they will be doing so in vain unless those two requirements follow on from their operations.
The Prime Minister said on Monday that as British forces continue the operation:
“Behind them will come Afghan forces, whose numbers I want to see raised very substantially over the next few weeks.”—[Official Report, 13 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 28.]
He is quite right to want to see them raised, but that implies that there are nowhere near enough of them at the moment. It seems urgent that agreement be reached with the Afghan Government about that element of the strategy, to ensure that the “hold” part follows the “clear”, and that territory is held. I hope that the Defence Secretary will tell the House what indications are now emerging from the Afghan Government about their response to the Prime Minister’s representations. Is it a difficulty that the Afghan army is usually sent on three-year deployments, and is there a case for more rapid turnover of some of its personnel on deployments into Helmand so that the numbers can be increased?
Will the Defence Secretary also provide assurances that detailed plans are in place for the “build” phase after Operation Panther’s Claw? There should be actual plans in place to ensure that any military gain is translated into an enduring shift in the political and security situation in Helmand province, and the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office should be working together intensively—hopefully they are—and working with our NATO allies to achieve that.
I hope that the Defence Secretary will also clarify where our policy on dealing with opium production in Helmand now stands. This country has spent huge sums of money, hundreds of millions of pounds, on trying to eradicate that production, but the US envoy Richard Holbrooke said at the G8 meeting on Afghanistan:
“Eradication is a waste of money…It might destroy some acreage, but it didn’t reduce the amount of money the Taliban got by one dollar.”
In the light of that, where does policy now stand? There are British and American forces at work in Helmand, yet the policies of the British and American Governments on poppy production eradication seem entirely different. Surely they need to be brought into line if an effective policy is to be pursued.
I hope that the Minister can also tell us about progress on building up the Afghan army. The Prime Minister has set out the objective of building it up to 134,000 by late 2011. That must be the right thing to do. The speed and scale are crucial—they, along with a non-corrupt and sorted-out police force, will ultimately allow Afghanistan to take care of itself.
I want to make one point about Pakistan. Another lesson of the past is that insurgent groups melt across the border to regroup in Pakistan when they are hard pressed in Afghanistan. A significant difference is that the Pakistani army is engaged in intensive operations on its side of the border. We look to Ministers to confirm that co-ordination is taking place with the Pakistani authorities—I think, from the Foreign Secretary’s speech, that that is happening—to ensure that the spillover effects of our operations in Helmand are anticipated and headed off, and insurgent groups are thus denied the breathing space that perpetuated the cycle of conflict in Afghanistan in the past.
Conservative Members want the clear pursuit of tightly defined objectives in Afghanistan. We want the Government to explain their strategy and their achievement—or non-achievement—of objectives regularly to the House and the country. We want the Afghan strategy to be reviewed in the round after the elections and co-ordinated with that of the United States. We want unrelenting attention to be paid to what the nation—and many hon. Members—believe are deficiencies in the number of helicopters provided for our troops. If “clear, hold and build” is the approach, we want to know that, in current operations, in which so many of our soldiers are making every effort, the Government are confident that we can hold and build as well as clear. That is the road to eventual success.
I was in the States last week with the NATO Science and Technology Committee, visiting the Harvard JFK school of government in Boston and discussing topics that dealt with the priorities of President Obama’s Administration and developments in Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. We also examined scientific advances, such as soldier nanotechnologies and cyberterrorism, and talked to experts in non-proliferation issues.
During that visit, we heard about the special operation that was taking place in central Helmand and the south of Helmand—Operation Panther’s Claw. We heard the tragic news of the eight British soldiers and some American soldiers who had been killed in the operation, within hours of each other, in separate incidents. The numbness that the news created and the guilt that we all feel when our young men and women pay the ultimate price while putting their lives in harm’s way were too awful for words.
However, it is not good enough just to say how sorry we are—and we are; how proud we are—and we are; how the fallen did not die in vain—they did not; or that the mission is defensible—it is. The families, in coping with their grief and loss, need a bit more than that from Parliament. They need to know that their loss is not in vain and that the terror that threatens every man, woman and child in every community in our country will be defeated—and it will.
Few in the House doubt the threat and the danger emanating from Afghanistan. Those who argue for our walking away and letting the Taliban return to power, with all that would mean for the security of our country and the rest of the western world, delude themselves if they believe that the terrorism we seek to defeat in Helmand would not come to the streets of London, Birmingham, Glasgow and other cities in our country. However, my support is not without criticism, particularly when I hear retired generals criticising their successors and/or the Government. We know them—they took the Queen’s shilling when they were in charge, but they are now writing books, working for defence companies and being super-critics.
Afghanistan was where 9/11 was planned and executed from. Bin Laden was in the mountains with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The No. 1 priority for us all should have been to catch and defeat al-Qaeda and stop the terrorism on our streets, but sadly it was not. I believed then, and I believe now, that Iraq was a disaster—it was a side issue and had nothing to do with the 9/11 attack in New York. The world would be a different place today if we had taken on the Afghan mission then, as we should have. Nothing that I have heard since has changed my opinion on that.
I return to where we are today and what we need to do. The Foreign Secretary talked about the importance of the NATO mission, which has been accepted across the House. The Brits and Americans are leading the coalition, but they are providing troops disproportionately to other NATO members. That is just not good enough. Those who argue for the enlargement of NATO would have to convince me that the current NATO members have proven their worth before we look to enlarge further. There are still NATO members that are not sharing the burden in this mission.
I want to comment briefly on troop numbers, about which much has been said. Should we send 2,000 more troops, on top of the 9,000 troops who are already there? General Dannatt is reported as having requested 2,000 more troops. My view is that if he has argued the case for that, that case should be answered. If the soldiers on the ground are telling the politicians that they need 2,000 more troops, I would certainly support that request. Unlike the retired generals, I much prefer the views of the soldiers on the ground, and I would support them if they needed those troops.
I want to finish my brief contribution by putting a marker down about troop protection and care for our veterans. I started my contribution by saying that I had talks in Boston last week on soldier nanotechnologies. There is fantastic proven research into soldier nanotechnologies taking place now—technologies that will save lives and give protection to our soldiers, but which, until now, had relevance only in Hollywood science fiction movies. That new technology will not be cheap, and it may be that our defence budgets will have to be reprioritised. However, the question must surely be: why should we spend billions of pounds on a nuclear deterrent that does not deter, when we can spend a fraction of the £30 billion to £60 billion needed for renewing Trident and completely change the risk to our armed forces, saving lives and protecting our soldiers from serious injury?
I am a patron of a veterans’ charity in my constituency called FEBA, or Forward Edge of the Battle Area. Troops returning from the battlefield need our support, and we have much to do to deliver on that moral duty to our armed forces. We read of statistics: for instance, 8 to 10 per cent. of soldiers who return to our community are in prison, while 25 per cent. of people sleeping rough on the streets are former members of our armed forces returning to our community. Sadly, many of our soldiers return with limbs missing and other serious disablements. However, many more return looking perfectly normal and re-enter our communities, and no one recognises the combat stress that they and many thousands more in our armed forces are suffering. Veterans’ charities such as FEBA in my constituency are doing their best, but the Government, politicians and our communities in general need to do more.
The hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton, East (Mr. Hood) was quite right to remind us about the veterans who return from Iraq, Afghanistan or any other theatre of conflict bearing not physical but mental scars, and I hope that the charity in his constituency goes from strength to strength in supporting those soldiers.
There remains a broad consensus in this House on key aspects of the policy on Afghanistan. The key objective of the mission in Afghanistan to stop al-Qaeda was, and is, correct. We are right to ask that that objective be tightly defined, as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) did, and to ask exactly what it means in practice, but there is no doubt that counter-terrorism remains the stated reason for the war and, unlike in the case of Iraq, that is not being questioned by any of the main parties.
There has also been consensus recently on the need to change the coalition’s approach in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and President Obama has provided the leadership to make possible such undertakings as troop reinforcements and the civilian surge in Afghanistan, and the encouragement of the Government of Pakistan to deal with the Taliban in their country and to back those efforts with expert counter-insurgency support and development aid. We shall wait to see whether those changes are successful, but we agree that they are correct. However, we can question the resources that either America or, in our case, Britain has put behind those changes.
There has of course been total consensus on our shared gratitude to, and admiration and deep respect for, our armed forces, and on the brilliant work of diplomats, UK civilians, aid organisations and others. We are filled with admiration for the great commitment that they show when carrying out their very difficult tasks. And of course we pay tribute to all those who have died. We remember them and their families in our hearts.
Any consensus on matters as serious as these cannot be a cosy consensus; it has to be questioned hard. When our troops have been engaged in a war for eight years, it is surely incumbent on this House to ask the toughest questions about the strategy and the objectives. I do not want the Foreign Secretary to think that our questions are rhetorical. We do not pretend to have all the answers, but we do want to see signs that the Government have some of the answers, and that they are working hard and fast to find the rest of them.
There is consensus on the broader aspects of the objective, but it has not always been clear how we would eventually achieve it. Sometimes, the objective has been described in rather vague language. I hope that notions of a western-style democracy and even of nation building have now been replaced. We need to focus on the counter-terrorism agenda more directly. That is not to say that we should give up other objectives for Afghanistan, particularly those relating to development. Those objectives for the international community should surely be there, whether or not our troops are there. We want to see Afghanistan’s economy improve, its children educated, and so on, but that is not why we are fighting, and we need to be more honest about that.
Even working to a more limited, better defined objective of tackling an al-Qaeda terrorist threat to London, New York and elsewhere that has been trained for and organised from Afghanistan and the Pakistan border, we need to ask how we will know when that objective has been achieved. How will we know when we have neutered every al-Qaeda cell in that vast mountainous expanse? The normal explanation is that, once there is stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan and once they have Governments who will themselves take on any terrorists that might threaten us, it will be mission accomplished—if one dare use that phrase.
Indeed, a second part of our Afghanistan objectives, according to the Foreign Secretary, has increasingly become to provide a level of stability to prevent the dangers of a failed state, which Afghanistan clearly has been and Pakistan has at times threatened to become. That prompts further questions about the stability we are seeking. What is the level of stability at which a state is deemed to be functioning well enough to reassure us that terrorists will be expelled or arrested by that Government? I find it difficult to describe that point except in terms that make me wonder whether we could ever achieve it, particularly in Afghanistan.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if a degree of stability is ever reached in some of those hostile territories, a military presence will still be needed, but in the longer term such a presence will have to be provided by the Afghan army so that at some time our troops can come home?
I absolutely accept that and I shall come back to the subject later.
There are tough questions surrounding our views on the Taliban and on the intentions we think they have to foment and protect international terrorist organisations like al-Qaeda. Is the conservative Pashtun nationalism that characterises much of the Taliban inherently jihadist? The Taliban may be deeply unattractive and unpopular with many Afghans, but do they represent an inherent threat to us and other countries? Is there any intelligence assessment to tell us that the Taliban might agree to fight al-Qaeda themselves, if only ISAF—the international security assistance force—were to withdraw from the south of Afghanistan? How would that be viewed in relation to the objective of ensuring stability in Pakistan? These strike me as not unreasonable questions to ask. I am simply asking for far more honesty and rigour in how we approach the definition of our objectives.
Has the hon. Gentleman considered this point? He and I think most of the speeches so far, have concentrated on the situation in Afghanistan when we know that during the last couple of years there has been an enormous spread of the Taliban in Pakistan, which is also associated with al-Qaeda activity? Will he comment on the implications for the much more serious situation in Pakistan if our efforts in Afghanistan were to fail? If the Taliban, still supporting al-Qaeda, were able to resume control, that would not only be bad news in Afghanistan but make the task of the Pakistani Government infinitely more difficult, with far more ominous consequences for the rest of the world.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right to say we need to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan in order to support the Pakistan Government in achieving what we have asked them to do, but that still prompts the question of when sufficient stability will have arrived in southern Afghanistan to provide an acceptable level of stability in Pakistan. I accept his point, but it still raises other questions, which are precisely those I am seeking to raise.
The political stability required to provide us with sufficient security from a repeat of al-Qaeda terrorist attacks might have quite a messy, chaotic and confused aspect. It may well be that that type of political stability could be provided by a state that is relatively weak. That is why I am trying to tease out from the Government whether they really expect a western-style strong democracy to provide the political stability we need or whether there is some other shape to it.
I believe that we are sometimes in danger of suggesting that we have to defeat the Taliban totally and everywhere in order to win and then withdraw our troops, but that does not seem to me to be realistic. We need to focus for part of the time on how best to contain the Taliban with strengthened Governments in Kabul and in Pakistan.
The hon. Gentleman is right to make the point that we should begin to lower expectations about the eventual outcome. Our former ambassador, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, made the point that we could not expect a western-style democracy suddenly to spring out of the soil in Afghanistan and that something much less than that might be all that was necessary for an exit strategy.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for those points.
When we think about our counter-terrorism strategy more widely I believe this point becomes clearer, because the terrorist threat we face in Britain does not uniquely live somewhere confined to the mountains either side of the Durand line. As we have seen, that threat can come from our own towns and cities and it can be fomented as much by our presence in a foreign Islamic country as by our absence. My guess—honestly, it can only be a guess—is that our deployment so far has been an effective part of our wider counter-terrorism strategy: by denying al-Qaeda its previous space, ISAF has made our citizens appreciably safer. However, the job of Ministers is not to guess but to ask for intelligence assessments to decide which strategy makes the country safer.
I presume that the Foreign Secretary sees spine-chilling accounts from the intelligence services of how many al-Qaeda fighters are in the region, and how many hundreds or thousands of foreigners are travelling from all over the world to join their jihad against us. When was the last time that he or the Prime Minister assessed, against the evidence and intelligence, the progress of our policy on Afghanistan in achieving its central counter-terrorist objectives? Have the Government assessed whether Operation Enduring Freedom and the ISAF deployment is the best way to use our resources to make Britain and the world safer? Ultimately, can Ministers assure us that there is a serious remaining threat to Britain and the world posed by al-Qaeda fighters, if they are still there, and from the danger of a failed state in Afghanistan or Pakistan leading to the resurgence of an al-Qaeda threat? Unless that threat remains, is real, and can be tackled by our presence, the mission’s objective is undermined—I do not believe that it is, but we need to be reassured that the Government are asking such questions of our intelligence services and military.
On resources for our troops, the three charges made against the Government relate to helicopters, vehicles and troop numbers. On all accounts, the Government have at best been slow to address those issues, and at worse made serious errors.
Is there not a grave danger that if troop movements take place more in helicopters in future, we might see a repeat of what happened during the Russian invasion when 20 helicopters were shot down? Were that to happen, we might see our soldiers dying not in twos or three, but in 30s or 40s?
I do not have the full information to answer that question, because I do not know the full weapon capability of the Taliban, but my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) informs me from a sedentary position that they do not have the weapons that the Mujaheddin had against the Russians and their helicopters. I defer to others on the exact details.
Indeed. Let us be clear that the role of helicopters is judged to be crucial by everyone across the House. Those of us who want to criticise the Government for failing to provide sufficient helicopters in a timely fashion are right to make that challenge. The all-party Defence Committee report published today has gone into huge detail: parliamentary colleagues talked to soldiers, commanders and other experts, and found that we have not been ensuring that the helicopter fleet is ready. The report is alarming—though it does not use alarmist language—in concluding:
“We were concerned both by the proposed reduction in the size of the fleet, and by the emergence of a ‘capability deficit’ ahead of the introduction of newer helicopters.”
That is extremely serious. I hope that whichever Defence Minister responds to the debate, some of the Defence Committee’s criticisms will be addressed.
It is right to question the Government, and to criticise if fault is found. Does the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that in a week when eight dead soldiers were returned, three of whom were so young that they were still in primary school when the Afghan conflict started, politicians should not create the impression that the casualties would not have been inflicted if only we had the helicopters? We must be sensitive.
The hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) said, perfectly fairly, that because a helicopter contains a large number of people, it can cause a large number of deaths at any one time. That is true. Provided that the helicopters are available to them, commanders on the ground will need to weigh the risks in the balance, and decide whether one method of transport is safer than another.
I agree. I believe that such decisions should be made by the soldiers and commanders on the ground, not by us in the House of Commons. Our job is to provide them with the necessary resources in the first place.
My hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) asked a question that did not receive a reply. If, for some reason, it is dangerous for the figures relating to the absolute number of helicopters two years ago and the present number to be in the public domain—of which I am not entirely convinced—surely those figures can be shared with members of the Select Committee so that they can, on our behalf, hold the Government to account for the statements that they are making about helicopters.
The shortage is serious for a number of reasons, many of which have been aired this afternoon. If commanders on the ground are given the option of moving troops by air as well as by road—we saw plenty of that in Northern Ireland—and if there are not enough helicopters, many victories on the ground will become pyrrhic if we do not dominate the ground afterwards. That is what we are currently seeing in parts of Afghanistan.
I am sorry, but I want to make some progress. I do not want to take too much of the House’s time: I want others to be able to speak.
When it comes to troop numbers, the case against the Prime Minister’s judgment seems even stronger. As was pointed out by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, the chiefs of staff appear to have put to the Prime Minister a recommendation—not an option—in stating that the provision of 2,000 extra troops was their preference. It appears that cost was a key issue in the rejection of their recommendation. If that is not the case, the Secretary of State can stand up at the Dispatch Box and deny it, but so far we have heard no denial of those reports, although the charge is fairly serious. I hope that the Secretary of State will at least try to respond to it when he winds up the debate.
I do not think that anyone is arguing that a reinforcement of 2,000 troops would have transformed our fortunes in Helmand—of course it would not—but it is clear that more troops would have helped to do the job of winning more territory ahead of the key elections. However, even more troops cannot help if there is no link between their presence and the political solutions that we are trying to achieve. General McChrystal is at least trying to stop the military part of the campaign from making the political solutions more difficult with his instruction to reduce the number of civilian casualties.
More should have been done much earlier to prevent civilian casualties. When the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) asked about the number of casualties in February this year, the Foreign Secretary promised to write to him with the best estimate that the Government had. Perhaps the Secretary of State will tell us what that figure was, and whether there is any update.
Of course, a political solution through our military presence means doing much more than simply limiting the collateral. We are told that the civilian surge is key to that, and is being developed and improved, but the critical question must be “What is the involvement of ordinary Afghans in that surge?” The Foreign Secretary has rightly talked about “Afghanisation” of the efforts, but I want to hear in far more detail how that is being implemented.
Of course General McChrystal is right to place the emphasis where he does, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman would not try to give the impression that we have been cavalier about civilian casualties in the past. We have done all that we can to avoid them, and we investigate them thoroughly whenever they arise. The Taliban kill far more Afghans than our forces do.
I can reassure the Secretary of State that I agree with him on that point, but I hope he accepts that there have been many reports suggesting that the Americans have been rather more cavalier than the British forces in that regard. I think that that is why General McChrystal—not me—gave that instruction.
I beg the hon. Gentleman’s pardon, but I am not going to take any more interventions.
I assume that Governor Mangal is central to organising the civilian surge, at least in Helmand; but is he? I think we need to know about the nature of the involvement of the Afghan people. The civilian-military operations may have a great deal of British and American input, especially in terms of finance and specialist skills, but can we be told in the winding-up speech how many Afghans are working with these teams, and how are local fears of being branded a collaborator should the Taliban retake a village or town being overcome? That is critical to achieving the local political solutions we need, and we cannot move from the military to the political solutions unless we deal with that fear.
Part of my concern about the current strategy—if we can call it that—is that one rarely hears a convincing description of what shape the political solutions envisaged in Washington, London, Kabul and elsewhere will take. The elements are there and they are repeated often. They include the following: the elections in August; the emphasis on having local political solutions, which is vital given the reality of decentralisation in Afghanistan; the importance of building the Afghan national army and police force; and the investment in non-narcotic agriculture. Yet it all seems to lack coherence. Perhaps General McChyrstal will bring some coherence after he has completed his current review, which will presumably take into account the election result. However, one has to ask some serious questions about whether the Government are playing their full role in making sure that everything is coherent.
On the elections, how is ISAF planning to judge whether they have been a successful exercise that confers genuine legitimacy on the victor? With half the population registered to vote at the last estimate, and with widespread accusations of fraud in some provinces, do Ministers believe this election can provide the springboard that we all hope for? One also has to ask searching questions about security and the international monitoring of the campaign and polling day itself. When he replies to the debate, can the Secretary of State say a little more about the preparations for this election, as that is clearly a critical part of the journey to political progress?
In describing that political progress, I would like the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary to say a little more about how they view the role of the Taliban. Have the Taliban been engaged in any shape or form by our diplomats or security services? Are there any successful attempts that Ministers can point to of having engaged parts of the Taliban and peeled them away? If there are such examples, we need to hear about them, because the plans for reconciliation and a political solution depend on it. We need the Government to address those questions, otherwise concern will remain about the direction we are taking.
My final remarks relate to Pakistan. It appears that some progress has been made; either through persuasion, bribery, reassurance or simply of their own volition, the Pakistani Government appear to have grasped some difficult nettles, and they deserve credit for that. Our Government are therefore right to proffer our strong support, with development aid and counter-insurgency expertise. As the Foreign Secretary noted, providing assistance to the refugees of the fighting is also critical. The better co-operation we have seen between ISAF and Pakistan, and between Presidents Karzai and Zardari, also bodes well. Do the Government think that can be sustained, and how are we helping in that, and does it mark the strategic shift we all want? We have heard about the Pakistani army now patrolling parts of the border to stop the Taliban regrouping in Pakistan. That is fantastic, but can it be sustained?
The better relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan points to what we need in the wider sense—the inclusion of all the region’s players to create the solution. Secretary of State Clinton deserves a lot of credit for trying to do that. Everyone is aware of the many historical and political sensitivities that arise in any one of the region’s players being involved, such as India’s disputes with Pakistan over Kashmir, and the fact that the Iranians, who have been extraordinarily helpful in the west of Afghanistan at different times, have many arguments with Britain and America. We need to find the diplomatic skills to see beyond those historical sensitivities and disagreements, in order to find a solution that will work in Afghanistan.
I believe that President Obama, Secretary Clinton, Richard Holbrooke and General McChrystal have produced something that we can all rally behind—ISAF and the many countries involved in this enterprise. We are now entering a critical phase, and the effort, the extra resources and the extra political capital put behind it now need to be made to work. The Government know they have the support of all the main parties on this, but they have got to start answering more searching questions to make sure they retain the support of the country.
I declare an interest, as registered. May I begin by expressing my condolences for every one of the young men and women who have given their life or sustained injury in the cause for which we sent them? We should remember them every moment of every day.
In the limited time available to me, I wish to touch on the questions before the House, which concern strategy, resources, Government posture and the nature of the conflict. The strategic objective, which has been the subject of much discussion here, has been clear from the beginning. It may have been formulated in different ways, but it is as follows: to protect our country’s security by assisting the democratically elected Afghanistan Government to reconstruct their civil, political, military and economic capacity.
In order to achieve that objective, there are two short to medium-term aims and a longer-term objective. The short to medium-term aims are: first, to prevent the Taliban from once again using Afghanistan as their own Government through imposition, by terror and force, on the people of Afghanistan; and, secondly, to prevent that shield from allowing al-Qaeda to use Afghanistan as a space in which it can plan, rehearse and launch terrorist attacks outside Afghanistan’s borders. The longer-term strategic objective is, of course, to help build an Afghanistan capable of self-government domestically and of securing its borders from internal or external infiltration and threat. There have never been the heightened expectations to which several people in this Chamber have referred; nobody ever thought that we would create another United Kingdom somewhere next to Pakistan. I used to say that we do not believe that we are creating Hampshire—or New Hampshire—near Kabul. Any development on the civil, political and military side will have to bear in mind the culture, history, traditions, beliefs and limitations of Afghanistan’s tribal society. So let us put that in perspective. It is right that we should be clear in our aims, but I do not believe that we have ever been that unclear that we thought we were creating a western democracy.
Secondly, there are some myths and misconceptions about resources. The initial configuration—
I have been listening carefully and seeking to hear from the right hon. Gentleman what the strategy is. What he has outlined is a series of aspirations, but as Professor Richard Holmes would put it, this campaign seems to be long on aspirations and rather short on coherent strategy—on how we are going to achieve those aims.
I think that the hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong. What I outlined, in slightly less than a minute and a half, was the strategic objective and the short and longer-term means of achieving it. I did precisely what he asked for; I did not give a list of aspirations; I gave a list of objectives, which is what a strategy is about. Beyond the grand strategy of politics is the military strategy of how to achieve it, and behind the military strategy are the planning assumptions and the resources necessary in order to achieve that.
That is why I turn now to resources. Let me tell the House that the configuration that we sent in to Helmand province in 2006 was not, contrary to some of the statements made in recent days, chosen by politicians. That configuration—that series of resources, in shape, capabilities and numbers—was decided upon by the chiefs of staff. Secondly, its funding was not refused by the Treasury. It was my job, as the then Secretary of State, to get it fully funded, and one of the three conditions that I laid down before we went into Afghanistan was precisely that the Treasury would fund it.
Having said that, since then there has, of course, been a change of tactics by the Taliban, a change of circumstances and a change in the mission itself, in some ways. So people are right to ask whether the current resources meet the current tasks, notwithstanding the fact that they have met the tasks in the past. We are right, therefore, to ask the Government to keep an open mind. No plan survives the first contact with the enemy, and as the enemy changes in response to our actions, and the resources we need are different or greater, it is the obligation of Government to supply the resources that the military thinks that it needs to accomplish the objectives set out. I hope that the Government will do that. I am not in a position to decide on what Sir Richard Dannatt or anyone else requested, but when we ask young men and women to risk their lives at the front, we should ensure that they have the resources to minimise those risks.
I wish to tackle another myth—that I at any stage hoped, predicted, expected, promised or pledged that we would leave Afghanistan without firing a shot. It is not true. No matter how often the press repeat that, they cannot make an untruth truthful by constant repetition—although Goebbels recognised that if an untruth were repeated often enough, people might come to believe that it was the truth. In fact, to the contrary, I insisted that were great threats in Afghanistan. Indeed, I refused to deploy the troops for four months beyond the original date because we did not have the configuration necessary—the Dutch were not in Oruzgan province to protect our northern flank.
I could give quotation after quotation, but I shall make a couple suffice. The other day I said:
“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.”—[Official Report, 13 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 4.]
But the Taliban wanted to destroy that which was being created and we were therefore forced to defend ourselves, which we did with great vigour.
I said three years ago that
“only someone who is dreadfully naive would think that we will be allowed to carry out …the NATO task, in which we will be involved when we go to the south…unhindered by any attacks.”—[Official Report, 23 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 1159.]
Earlier, I had said:
“I stress that wherever NATO troops are in Afghanistan they may be liable to attacks from insurgents. If they are attacked by insurgents and terrorists, of course we will defend ourselves—that is the nature of the rules of engagement and of our remit.”—[Official Report, 12 December 2005; Vol. 440, c. 1093.]
I hope that the House will forgive me for raising these points. All hon. Members, as politicians, are used to being misrepresented, but it does not usually happen on a subject as sensitive as this, when there are families grieving for those who have died and who expect us to set the record straight.
If we do not understand the nature of the conflict, we will not understand whether we can win, what is the nature of “victory” and whether we are making progress. I commend to the House the thoughts of several British generals, but especially those of General Rupert Smith, who describes the nature of the present conflict as the “struggle among the people”. That is what we are engaged in, and the nature of the victory therefore lies not in the traditional victory parade on a definite date with a definite piece of land secured, but in preventing the Taliban from enforcing their will on the Afghanistan people, by excluding al-Qaeda and by securing our country’s safety. But it is a continuing struggle that will go on for a considerable time. Nevertheless, it is important that we believe that we need not be there indefinitely. Part of our aim in our strategic objectives is to allow the people of Afghanistan, through their own Government, to continue that struggle when we are gone—in the way that the people of Iraq are doing against the internal enemy.
Military force has no utility on its own. It only has utility in pursuit of a political objective. So when we have a military surge—as we are having now, and I welcome that—we need to bear in mind that at some stage we will also need a political surge. If we are to achieve some form of stability in Afghanistan, that political surge means that we will have to deal with, talk to and perhaps incorporate among those who govern Afghanistan those tribal elements and those elements of the Taliban who are opposed to al-Qaeda. In other words, we must help to build a hybrid state there.
In short, there is no military solution. The military are there only to accomplish the political objectives that we have laid out. Our aim is to enable Afghanistan to continue on its own so that it can build a civil society and develop its own economy and security. Above all, we want a better society for the people of Afghanistan. In working for that, we can make sure that our front line in Afghanistan protects the people in our communities and country.
The right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) is right to say that the conflict in Afghanistan has changed over the past eight years. It is much more serious than was anticipated, and that has given rise to a degree of public concern. However, although we recognise that there are real problems in Afghanistan, it is important that we are careful to ensure that they are not presented in a way that makes public concern greater than it need be.
I think that the British public are pretty robust about Afghanistan. The situation is very different from the one in respect of Iraq. The nation was not divided about the intervention in Afghanistan, and questions of legitimacy have never been a serious issue. There was confusion at first, when the British and American Governments appeared to give equal weight to eliminating the poppy trade, getting rid of corruption and improving human rights as to the fundamental task of removing al-Qaeda’s opportunity to operate. That problem was resolved a year or so ago, since when there has been much greater clarity. I very much welcome that, as it is much to be desired.
However, it is also important to recognise the public’s attitude to fatalities. There is a debate about whether more helicopters might have reduced the number of deaths in Afghanistan. I very much agree with what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) said a few moments ago, and we are foolish if we sometimes give the impression that people die in war because the Government of the day have made a mistake, or because the armed forces have done something wrong.
Wars today are not much changed from those in bygone years. Large numbers of people die, and we can never know whether an extra helicopter would have prevented an individual fatality. It is foolish even to try to identify the answer to such a question. We have had terrible fatalities in Afghanistan, and every life lost is appalling. Some 47 of our people have lost their lives in the current year, but it is worth remembering that the US forces—even with their massive resources, large numbers of helicopters and all the other facilities available to them—have lost 109 people.
Since the campaign began, the UK has tragically lost 184 soldiers, but the US has lost 739. The Canadians, whose commitment is far smaller than ours, have lost no fewer than 124 troops. Our public are well aware of that, but we must remind them that people lose their lives when wars break out. People are rightly paying tribute to the awful loss of life that has happened, but they are much more robust than we sometimes give them credit for. They realise, as they did during the Falklands war, that death is inseparable from any serious war with proper ends and a proper approach.
Lord Owen said recently that he believed that the conduct of the war was inappropriate and that there was a need for what he called an “overlord”. He suggested that Lord Robertson should be brought back to be the overlord for the various Departments involved in the conflict. I have great respect for Lord Owen. I usually agree with his remarks, but not on this occasion. Overlords have been tried before—Sir Thomas Inskip in the 1930s is one example—but they do not work. They do not have a Department to run, and they have no budget or powers, so all they can do is to try and co-ordinate what is going on. That never works. However, if we need an overlord we have one already. He is called the Prime Minister. If the job of co-ordination—of banging heads together—is needed, that is his responsibility and no one else’s. It ought to be seen as such.
I turn now to the main ways in which the campaign has changed, and the issues that we are now addressing. The debate is about Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it is right that it has been given that double title because the whole purpose of the campaign has changed very dramatically. In the earlier years, we assumed that Pakistan was important because its north-west frontier could not be a safe haven for Taliban or al-Qaeda forces fleeing from Afghanistan. In some ways, it is now the other way around. If we were to fail in Afghanistan, and if the Taliban, or people like them, were to regain control, or if people sympathetic to al-Qaeda were to be in charge, not only would it have the most grave consequences within Afghanistan and for the wider community, but it would make the job of the Pakistani Government, who are now much more robust then they have been for many years, infinitely more difficult. How could they hope to eliminate the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda in their own country, if those very people could themselves seek haven in Afghanistan? That could be their retreat in depth from any conflict in which they were involved. So the stakes are very high and we should not forget that.
There is this question of manpower. I shall not get into a dispute about whether the British Army in Afghanistan needs 900 or 2,000 people more. In reality, the problem arises from a quite separate point: over the past 12 years, the Government have been involved in more wars—including in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan—than any Government for 50 years, and yet during that same period Army manpower has been consistently reduced. That is a disgrace and needs to be rectified. Increasing Army manpower costs much less than many other aspects of the defence budget, as I know from my background in that Department.
In his opening remarks, the Member for Lanark and Hamilton, East (Mr. Hood) made an attack on retired generals. Any of us who have been privileged to serve as Ministers in the Ministry of Defence know that retired generals are an albatross around our necks, whatever the circumstances and at any time. However, I cannot recall a time when these same retired generals have been so vocal, unequivocal, acerbic and unconstrained in their criticisms. All Governments, whether this Government or previous ones, must remember that retired generals continue to have the closest of contact with serving generals and officers. What they say does not just reflect their own personal views, but is based on what they know is happening in the armed forces, and therefore has to be given weight. That is a matter of great concern.
The final area on which I want to comment relates to what I have just said, but is actually even more serious. To a far greater extent than I can recall being the case in the past 60 years, there is a very visible erosion in the confidence and trust between serving officers and the Government of the day. We are told that senior Labour figures are attacking the Chief of the General Staff and telling him not to meddle in politics and such matters. This is a matter of the gravest and most serious nature. I have not the time to say who is to blame, but the Government must realise, because they ultimately have the responsibility, that if serving and retired officers are speaking so publicly, and with such criticism of Government action, they have an enormous duty to try to address those concerns. These are not light-hearted matters, and the public will keep confidence in the whole operation only if they believe that the armed forces and Her Majesty’s Government are working with the closest confidence and mutual trust. The impression is that that is no longer the case. The quicker that that is addressed, the better.
I want briefly to offer a slightly different perspective on this war, although I agree with a great deal of what has been said. Everyone recognises the courage and enormous skill demonstrated by our armed forces in fighting what is clearly a difficult and dangerous war in Afghanistan. I endorse that, as—I am sure—does every Member of this House, but I do not think that that should be allowed to conceal unease about the nature of the conflict or its objectives and exit strategy. I want to concentrate on that.
The conflict has been represented in the west almost exclusively as a war against terrorism, but I submit that that is a highly misleading portrayal. For the Taliban, who are not al-Qaeda, it is basically a civil war: the Pashtuns, who are the traditional rulers of Afghanistan, against the Tajiks and Uzbeks, who make up the Northern Alliance and who, with US help in 2001, won the civil war and now largely dominate the Government. That, of course, is exactly the problem. The US and NATO invasion has unintentionally and perversely reinstated a series of brutal and corrupt landlords—warlords, I should say; they are also in control of a great deal of land, but I meant warlords—under the phoney pretence that they are democratic. The US and NATO set up a western-backed Karzai Government, but that Government’s writ runs for only a few miles outside Kabul.
As others have said, the invasion has driven the Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership over the border into Pakistan, where, of course, it is now infinitely more dangerous. The invasion also restored the Pashtun nationalism that is now represented by the Taliban. As mission creep has detached the Afghan war from the original target of al-Qaeda, it has morphed into a much wider kind of war. It is a war of civilisations, in which the western aspirations, which everyone in this House will support, of restoring stability, ensuring a certain measure of democratic government—I think that we all recognise the limits of that—and improving basic services for the people are pitted against the indigenous nationalistic determination on the ground to rid the country of foreign occupation.
Two other factors seem to make western goals much more problematic. One is the increasing reliance, especially by the US military, on air power as a way of minimising troop casualties, with devastating consequences in terms of increased civilian blood-letting.
In answer to the question put by the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), about the answer that I had from the Foreign Secretary about the number of civilian casualties in 2008, as far as I recall, according to the British Government the number was 234, but according to the United Nations, the number is 864. However, it was also pointed out that the number of civilian casualties caused by the Taliban was 1,100.
I take the points made by my hon. Friend. I was going to present some of those figures myself, but whatever the exact figures, the real point is about changing the perception of the Afghan population about western involvement in their country. The figures that I have are that civilian deaths at the hand of NATO forces have risen to more than 4,000 since 2006. In the past year alone, they have tripled to 2,000. I am not referring, of course, to those caused by UK troops; I understand that they are overwhelmingly caused by American troops, but the perception that they create affects the landscape for us.
Close air support bomb attacks, called in by ground forces, rose from about 175 in 2005 to nearly 3,000 in 2007. They are now, of course, the US tactic of choice, but they kill four to 10 times the number of Afghan civilians killed by ground attacks. Air strikes now account for around 80 per cent. of those killed by occupation forces, and it is certainly being claimed—I have no basis on which either to prove or to disprove this—that the coalition has killed more children in Afghanistan by its reckless use of tactical air power than have died at the hands of the Taliban. That is certainly being claimed; it may not be correct. Certainly, the numbers are considerable.
The second factor that I think makes western promotion of good governance much more difficult is the deeply unpopular 2005 agreement for indefinite bases in the country, which clearly indicated that the US, at least, saw itself as being in for the long haul. That was reinforced by NATO’s Secretary-General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who said, I think last year, that western interests in Afghanistan went well beyond good governance to a strategic interest in having a permanent military presence in a state that borders central Asia, China, Iran and Pakistan. The insurgency in Afghanistan is aiming not for terror attacks in London, but for the removal of foreign troops from the occupation of their country.
Given those factors, what is the exit strategy—if, indeed, the Americans intend there to be one at all? The war is stuck in a bloody stalemate. US and UK troops obviously have the ability to clear the ground, as they are showing with Operation Panther’s Claw in northern Helmand, but they are increasingly vulnerable to a high kill and casualty rate from improvised explosive devices—from booby traps, roadside bombs and so on. On the other side, the Taliban, according to constant western military reports, have a stiffened and highly organised determination to resist, but they are vulnerable to air power, particularly helicopter gunships.
Both sides will seek to overcome those difficulties, and to some extent they are, while consolidating their strengths. NATO forces are becoming more adept at locating hidden bombs, and troop numbers are being significantly boosted, with 17,000 in the case of the Americans, which is a 50 per cent. increase. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) said, the Taliban will certainly be trying to gain access to effective surface-to-air missiles, which, we should remember, turned the war against the Soviet forces in the 1980s and could do the same against NATO.
There is no obvious way out of the stalemate, other than by pouring in 10 or 20 times the number of NATO—for that, one reads US—troops, and that is surely unimaginable in terms of domestic US politics. Even 500,000 troops in Vietnam could not defeat a determined enemy, dedicated to throwing out its foreign occupiers. This is not now primarily a war against terror, and, even in so far as it is, the terror networks have been transferred into safe havens in Pakistan, the sixth largest state in the world and nuclear-armed, where their potential for destabilisation is certainly much greater.
Where is the situation leading? The strategic importance of Afghanistan does not suggest an early US withdrawal, and the US and its allies can neither pacify Afghanistan long-term, nor seal the border with the Taliban’s Pakistani sanctuary. There will have to be a negotiated withdrawal—certainly not immediately and certainly not in a hurry, but as part of a wider political and regional settlement underpinned by other forces in the region.
I fully supported the original intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, and the attack on the Tora Bora mountains, although it was not fully successful. However, since we went back in 2003, I have had great misgivings about the possibility of success. It seemed to me that the objectives that were announced would require a vastly greater commitment of troops, helicopters and back-up than Britain was capable of providing, and that the whole operation would break down because of the inadequate use of force.
Furthermore, it has to be borne in mind that the most important event in the history of Islam was when the Prophet Mohammed drove out the foreigners from the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. That is the inspiration for Osama bin Laden and the theological basis of his appeal to Muslims throughout the world. One will not find any well brought up six-year-old Muslim child who does not know that story, and it absolutely chimes with the basic feelings of people who live in Afghanistan. They, for centuries, have been invaded by foreigners. They have an absolute detestation of foreign intervention; the more troops we put into Afghanistan, the greater the resistance to us will be. Years ago, when these debates were beginning, I made two points. The first was that 300,000 troops would not be sufficient to do the job and the other was that the more troops we put in, the more it would be like throwing kerosene on to a burning tent. I believe that that remains true today.
I want to deal with only very few points during the short time that I have to speak. The original objectives have virtually been abandoned; they were to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, get rid of the poppy trade, overthrow the Taliban and set up a democratic Government. None of them has been achieved, and I do not believe that any ever will be. In fact, Osama bin Laden is probably more of a danger dead than alive, because of his mystique.
I want to question two particular points. Basically, the new objectives are that we want to fight in Afghanistan to avoid terrorism in Britain and the method of achieving that in the medium and long term is the building up of a large Afghan army. The issue is vital for the future, so I ask Ministers to ask themselves a question: to whom do they think this large Afghan army will owe its allegiance? Afghanistan, which is the size of France, is not really a country at all; until the early 19th century, it was just called the area in which the Afghans lived. There is really no such thing as an Afghan. Afghanistan has 60 different tribes. The northern tribes in the Northern Alliance—the Uzbeks, the Tajiks and so on—are quite different from the Pashtun, who were called the Pathans when I was young.
There is no possibility of such tribes working together for any length of time. If the army is to be predominantly Pashtun, it will be disliked by all the other tribes; if the army is an attempt to merge all the tribes together, it will simply be unworkable. The arms that we give the army will all be sold to the Taliban, as happened with the mujaheddin. Much of the weaponry that the Taliban are using now comes from the $25 billion of arms that the Americans poured into the mujaheddin.
In my view, there is not the slightest possibility that the army will be loyal to President Karzai. The idea that our young men are fighting and dying so that President Karzai can remain President of Afghanistan is absolutely fantastic. Only a few weeks ago, Washington was desperately looking around to find somebody other than Karzai to be put up for the presidency. He is a completely hopeless and discredited man. If he goes back to the presidential palace in Kabul, he will not be able to come out again without immediate danger of assassination.
The other argument is that we have to go on with our campaign because of the danger of terrorism at home. I do not believe that that is true. First, Jonathan Evans, the head of MI5, said recently that our military presence in Afghanistan actually increased the danger of terrorist activity in this country. We also know from the security services that 2,000 people living in Britain are under constant surveillance because they are believed to be potential terrorists. We are exporting terrorists all over the world; it is one of our most effective export trades. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have always been totally different from each other. The Taliban have never had international ambitions and have always disliked al-Qaeda. All the evidence is that al-Qaeda has now left Afghanistan altogether. There is no reason at all why we cannot negotiate a settlement with the Taliban; indeed, we know that the Americans are trying to do exactly that.
It is completely false to say that we have to pursue the war to protect Pakistan. I have been saying for seven years that this war would have the effect of radicalising Pakistan. The Taliban had no influence in Pakistan until very recently; now, allegedly, even Karachi has a Taliban influence. That sounds rather like sending in the Salvation Army to run Sodom and Gomorrah. The Taliban running Karachi is simply not going to happen; anybody who has been to Karachi knows that the Taliban will not be welcomed there. However, the Taliban are radicalising the peasantry throughout Pakistan, which has a huge population of illiterate, very poor people who have never had a proper Government and are very unhappy. Having foreign troops attacking Waziristan and so on will merely make them increasingly radical and increasingly violently opposed to western interests.
I, too, express my condolences to the families of those who have lost their lives in Afghanistan.
As always in these debates, I say that we have the best armed forces in the world who deserve all our support and the best possible equipment to ensure that they can continue to do the job in the way they do. War and conflict are not risk-free. There have clearly been areas where we could have done things better and perhaps learned lessons more quickly, but that has been the case in warfare and conflict throughout history. The key thing is to learn our lessons quickly.
Having spoken to our armed forces when I visited Afghanistan and Iraq, I sincerely believe that they feel they are better equipped than they have ever been. The personal kit, in particular, is seen as the best they have had, and there have been significant improvements in other equipment. One of their complaints was that although the equipment had improved a lot, they did not have a chance to train with it when they were back in the UK because they had to rush out to theatre. That is an important point to understand. Of course there is always more that we can do.
Something that has not been mentioned so far is the massive improvement in medical support. All the personnel I spoke to in theatre said that they had great confidence in the medical support that was out there in terms of how quickly it could get to people. There is now the hard-roofed hospital at Camp Bastion, which I have visited; it is a great facility that is being used by the Americans and others. When people come back to the UK, they go to Selly Oak or Headley Court. Major improvements have taken place under this Government.
I will not go over our objectives again, as my Front-Bench colleagues have made them fairly clear. A crucial aspect is the position of Pakistan—how it is involved, how we work with it, and its relationship with the whole region, not least Afghanistan. NATO, the UN and others will have to support and work with Pakistan to deal with terrorism, the Taliban and those who want to see chaos and war around the region. The fundamental Islamists who cause so many of the problems and difficulties that we face must be stood up to, and we cannot do that just by non-military means.
The Afghans told me that, for them, security is key—whether it is the security to go to school, to go to work or to get their goods to market—as is personal safety. That is something that we are working on very strongly. Also key is the development of the Afghan army and police, with increases in their numbers. A great deal of improvement has taken place in the Afghan army, but much more needs to be done as regards the police. At the end of the day, there will have to be reconciliation with elements of the Taliban and the tribes that are fighting against the coalition forces. That will have to be done by the Afghans themselves; it cannot be done by us, nor should it be.
Returning to the issue of equipment, it is important to understand that this is a NATO operation: a coalition. We have heard about General Dannatt flying in the American army helicopter; well, Americans fly in our helicopters. I flew in a Dutch helicopter when I was in Afghanistan for the first time. We must ensure that NATO uses its own resources to the best possible extent and efficiency.
I do not believe there is any doubt that we need more helicopters, and I welcome what the Government have said about the increased helicopter numbers and hours and our future plans. One thing that often gets overlooked is that helicopters are not just about deploying troops but about CASEVAC—casualty evacuation. They are about getting wounded service personnel back from the front line and to hospital for treatment as quickly as possible.
All the commanders I spoke to when I went to Afghanistan said that they wanted more helicopters. That was very clear and matter of fact. They regularly raised with me the fact that on every occasion they could go in and defeat the Taliban, but then because there were not enough troops on the ground, or sometimes enough equipment, to be able to dominate the area, the Taliban would come back in. Again, it was for NATO, not just this country, to get to grips with that. One of the biggest mistakes that was made was not dominating the ground that we took, and NATO has a responsibility for that, because we increased our troop numbers considerably.
I cannot say whether lives would have been saved if we had had more helicopters, as some have suggested. One of them could have been brought down and we could have lost a lot of soldiers—more than if an armoured vehicle was blown up, for instance. It is important to understand that it is not an exact science, and we cannot say that more helicopters would definitely have saved lives. Again, the question is whether NATO can provide more helicopters and more support.
We have increased troop numbers, and it is important that our troops dominate the ground to ensure that the development that we all want to see takes place. It annoys me that today commentators are still saying that the solution will not be a military one. No one is saying that it will, and I am amazed that commentators still go on about that. However, it must be a military aim to enable development to take place in terms of schools, hospitals, agriculture and so on for the Afghans.
I do not want the fact that protected vehicles are crucial to be lost in the debate about helicopters. The press are currently into helicopters, but we do not want money to be diverted from protected vehicles. There has to be a balance. Surveillance equipment is key for detecting roadside bombs and surveilling areas where the Taliban are known to be active. There must be a balance. The tactics must be right, and we must have a number of options available to us.
Lessons must always be learned quickly, and there is evidence that at times we have not done so. I do not know whether that is because of circumstances in the field or because of the set-up of the Ministry of Defence, but we have to learn lessons quickly. That has always been the case in warfare. In the second world war we were putting Sherman tanks against German tanks, and they were no match for them despite all the years at war. We must always learn lessons and ensure that we get things right and protect our troops in the best possible way.
The decision to go in was taken in 2006, before I was at the MOD. I would be interested to know what advice Ministers were given by the chiefs of staff about what could be achieved with the forces and equipment we had at that time, so that we could deliver our political aims and those of the western alliance.
In the end, we must support our armed forces, who are the best in the world. Politicians fail, as we know, and we have to revert to military action at times. The military are the people who protect our security, whether at home or abroad, and they deserve our full support.
The hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) spoke approvingly of the quality of medical services now available. Those who have the privilege of going to the hospital at Selly Oak or the rehabilitation centre at Headley Court will see ample evidence of that medical skill, but they will also see extraordinary illustrations of courage and a determination to overcome adversity from the patients in either institution.
We have no conscripts. Our armed forces are professional, and we therefore expect of them professionalism, skill and courage. However, we have no right to expect them to display those qualities unless, in return, we give them the best equipment available. We have no right to expose them to unnecessary risk and no right to take advantage of their loyalty. In Afghanistan, they have not failed in their duty, but—I do not say this lightly—I believe that we have failed in ours.
The United Kingdom is not equipped to conduct two hot wars, as it has done in the past six years. It was not supposed to be like that. The 1998 defence review, in which the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) played a leading part as the then Minister for the Armed Forces, was much praised. However, it envisaged one short war-fighting deployment and one non-war-fighting operation happening simultaneously. Instead, we have had two enduring war-fighting deployments. There is therefore no wonder that there is a shortage of equipment, that the Army, in Sir Richard Dannatt’s words has been “running hot”, and that the rate of attrition of equipment has been so severe.
The loyalty of the armed services extends beyond Queen and country to making do, getting on with the job—cracking on, to use their vernacular—and to, in the Army in particular, loyalty to the regiment and the people with whom they serve. Again, I do not say this lightly, but I believe that we have exploited that loyalty.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister spoke dismissively of what he called political point scoring. The Government should understand the difference between support for the armed services and the legitimate questioning of Government policy by Members of Parliament. As the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) gave us something of a historical perspective, I remind the House that as a result of the Norway debate in this Chamber, the course, conduct and direction of the second world war was substantially changed. Of course we will support our forces, but we have a duty as Members of Parliament to question Government policies when we believe that they are not apt or adequate to cover the challenges that our forces are required to meet.
Why have these matters come to a head in the past few days? It has happened almost certainly because of the casualties that have been suffered, but, as has been said, the issue of helicopters and protected vehicles has been around for a long time. As soon as the Taliban gave up face-to-face confrontation with our forces and embarked on the new tactic of improvised explosive devices, that same issue arose. A question for the Government is whether, when that happened, they responded adequately with the matériel and the equipment necessary to allow us to confront those tactics.
There is another question for the Government, which the debate has not properly answered. What is the strategy for co-ordinating the political, military, reconstruction and counter-narcotics policies? We have had a slightly semantic discussion about that, but yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister and the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) simply stated strategic objectives. Strategy is how one achieves those objectives—the means whereby they are co-ordinated. If it is true that the three senior members of the Cabinet with responsibility for those matters meet only once a month, that is nothing like the sort of co-ordination that is necessary. I say that because we are effectively at war, albeit not across Europe, as we were between 1939 and 1945, or, indeed, in Asia. However, we are at war and if the elements are to be properly knitted together to produce a benevolent outcome, much better co-ordination is required.
We have hardly heard a mention in the past two and a half weeks of the policy on narcotics, yet that is key to the hearts and minds operation. If all one has to grow is the poppy seed and the profit of that may be taken away and one lives in a subsistence economy, something else must be provided. The counter-narcotics strategy is also the key to dealing with the corruption that is endemic in the present Government in Afghanistan.
The hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle mentioned Mr. Karzai, who will win in August. However, I was at the Munich security conference earlier this year and Richard Holbrooke’s disdain for Mr. Karzai and his evident lack of confidence in him was manifest for all to see. So when we talk about political stability and establishing sound government, we ought to take account of the personalities who are available and not just the institutions.
Public opinion in this country is finely balanced, but unless there is clear evidence of some recognition by the Government of the position of the Army in Afghanistan in particular, it could easily fracture, leaving us with opposition to our continued presence. The argument will be: “Come out, irrespective of the consequences of doing so.” That is why I want to finish with this. Whatever else the Government are doing, they should be knocking on the door of every defence ministry of every NATO country and saying, “We want to beg, borrow or steal protected vehicles. We want to beg, borrow or steal any helicopters that you have. You may not be willing to risk the lives of your young men and women, but at the very least you have an obligation to help those of us who are willing to take that risk with the matériel that will enable us to carry this operation through to a proper conclusion.”
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate, having spent last week in Helmand with British forces at Camp Bastion and in Kandahar. I should like to put on record my thanks to our Ministry of Defence staff who facilitate such visits for Members of Parliament and to all those involved in theatre who make time to brief us, which they do very extensively.
Such visits are extremely worth while. I went on the principle of fact finding and learnt a huge amount. Also, the timing was significant, because it was the week when Operation Panther’s Claw was gathering momentum. Tragically, it was also a week of awful casualties and losses, some of which we saw at first hand. We cannot come back from such a visit and fail to be completely impressed by the professionalism, commitment and determination of all our armed forces who are in theatre conducting those operations.
With the intensification of the operation now taking place and with the tragically increased casualty numbers, it is inevitable that there will be, as there now is, increased public questioning of that operation. When we pursue military activities in democracies, it is entirely right that we should debate—and that we should have the right to debate—the conflicts in which we are engaged. However, we need to do that with sensitivity about the impact that it can have on those at the front undertaking those operations, while we comfortably debate their pros and cons back here. It is inappropriate for us to engage in straightforward political point scoring while soldiers’ lives are on the line, and while some are losing their lives and many others are sustaining life-changing injuries. We are entitled to debate and we should debate, but we must do it in a responsible manner.
I want briefly to say something about equipment. It is not the main focus of my contribution, but the visit that I undertook was an opportunity to pursue the issue in detail in conversation with commanders at the front line and with troops who are engaged in the conflict daily. No commander who briefed me and no soldiers to whom I talked said that they felt that they were ill-equipped for what we were asking them to do. Indeed, many said that they felt that they had the most up-to-date and sophisticated equipment to undertake their activities that they had ever had. Many soldiers said to me personally, “I’m better equipped than ever before.” We saw at first hand the sophisticated surveillance equipment that my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) mentioned, which is doing fantastic work, and the quality of the vehicles that the troops move around in. That needs to be balanced against other issues in the current debate about whether the equipment is right.
It is really important to understand, when discussing equipment, that it is a function of what is happening on the ground at any given time, and that that is never going to be static. There are several operations taking place in parallel at the same time, and there is shifting emphasis between different parts of the operations. Furthermore, conditions on the ground can change, sometimes very rapidly, as can the responses from the enemy with whom we are engaging. We need to understand that the equipment issue is not a static one, and that, to some extent, equipment is always going to struggle to keep pace with the reality on the ground. It is also important to remember the shared nature of the equipment, and not simply consider what UK forces get from UK sources. We need to consider what all the forces can access on a shared basis on the ground in response to the activities that they are being asked to undertake.
I want to focus mainly on this point. In the light of the changing nature of what is happening in Afghanistan and, tragically, of the increased losses, it is now incumbent on the Government to explain even more clearly the overall context of the operation. The explanation is available, and the Government have published some good documentation on it, but it is not yet comprehensively understood. Because of the increase in public questioning, it is now time to increase the degree of explanation, in order to combat public uncertainty and to give support to our forces who are undertaking this action.
The answers are available, and we have heard some of them during the course of the debate this afternoon, but we are not yet setting them out clearly enough. The questions break down into a number of different categories. Many people are asking what is different this time—a question asked not only by people in Afghanistan, but by the public who are watching the operation. We need to explain the relationship between what is happening in Afghanistan and what is happening in Pakistan. We also need to spend more time discussing what is being altered on the ground in order for our action to achieve a lasting impact, and how the responsibility to achieve it is being shared.
We also need to have a discussion with the public about what will constitute success in this context. That is not an easy concept to grasp, because this is not a conventional conflict. This is not about territorial gain, or about repelling an invader of our own territory. This action involves a much more complex notion of what may or may not constitute success. We need to be straightforward with the public and tell them that this is not an easy concept to grasp, and that success might have more to do with the absence of something awful than with the existence of something that is visibly evident to all of us.
We shall have an opportunity to set that out how I would like to see it. As we have been discussing, we know that the US is leading a rethink on strategy at the moment, which will have an impact on our deployment, as well as on other NATO deployments. We also know that the elections in Afghanistan in August will create something of a political watershed there, and that that will have an impact on the future commitment of Afghan forces, police and civilians. Those two factors will create an opportunity for the Government here to readdress with the public the nature of the United Kingdom’s contribution to this multinational, UN-endorsed effort.
We could provide greater clarity about our military contribution. We could also do more to explain the hearts and minds element of the strategy, which is extremely important, in order to explain how the present military action will open the way for economic, social and political development that will permanently alter the reality on the ground in Afghanistan and thus have an impact on our security here in the United Kingdom.
The question of timing is a difficult one. One commander said to me:
“This is Afghanistan; it is not fast.”
On the other hand, there is clearly pressure on us to achieve irreversible momentum. We have the luxury of being able to debate this issue while other people take the action, but we also have an obligation to explain what is happening. The morale of the troops with whom I spent last week is very high, but they would begin to worry if they sensed that public support for their work was ebbing away—
I would like to associate myself particularly with the remarks of the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) and other colleagues who have spoken powerfully on both sides of the House on this very important matter. In common with the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), a former Secretary of State for Defence, my heart goes out to the families of the fallen and the families of all the soldiers, airmen, members of the Navy and civilians serving in Afghanistan who are naturally extremely anxious at the turn of events taking place in that country.
Having said that, I regret having to say that the Prime Minister, who claims, rightly, the overall command of this matter, has in my judgment acted in a thoroughly casual way on this war. Since 2007, he has made just two statements to the House on the war in Afghanistan. That is not good enough, and I do not think this House has been kept anywhere near well enough informed. As colleagues such as the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife and my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) argued earlier, the co-ordination and overall arrangement of these matters has been absolutely disgraceful, and I think people should be very angry about it.
Whatever the sterile arguments—they were used on Monday by the Prime Minister who was dissembling in a less than frank manner about the situation of our troops in Afghanistan—at the end of the day the success of the operations in that country will all boil down to one thing and one thing only: the men carrying out these operations on the ground, those who support them and those committed to providing a holistic approach.
I want to speak today on behalf of the soldiers—the splendid, brave, long-suffering soldiers in the field, and those who support them. I would like the House to recall the words of Lord Wavell, when he said that
“in the last resort, the end of all military training, the settling of all policy, the ordering of all weaponry and all that goes into the makings of the armed forces is that the deciding factor in battle will always be this. That sooner or later, Private so-and-so will, of his own free will and in the face of great danger, uncertainty and chaos, have to advance to his front in the face of the enemy. If all that goes wrong, after all the training, the intensive preparation and the provision of equipment and expenditure, the system has failed.”
Well, we all know that it has not failed so far. The armed forces have never let us down, but I say to the House that the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Defence—not the present one—are letting them down by failing adequately to respond to their requirements for resources for the hugely demanding tasks laid upon them.
For the young soldiers of today, as for their truly illustrious forebears, warfare continues to represent the ultimate physical and moral challenge. In Afghanistan at this very moment, they are encountering a combination of extraordinary danger and rapidly changing circumstances amid conditions of chaos and uncertainty. Their skills, the skills and quality of their leadership, of their weaponry and of their equipment are all being very severely tested.
I believe that the Prime Minister’s shameful lack of urgency must become a thing of the past and that the Government must realise that we are at war. If they really mean what they say about supporting our soldiers with whatever they need, the Government must send more troops to Helmand—at least the 2,000 requested in the theatre capability review agreed between the Ministry of Defence and the Pentagon, and then refused by the Prime Minister and the Treasury. The Prime Minister should be deeply ashamed for such crass misjudgment, which denies commanders on the ground from holding hard-won objectives.
I want to say a few words about equipment. While everyone wants more, it is a fact that the soldiers’ personal kits—rifle, helmet, boots and clothing—are truly excellent; they have to carry an enormous amount of weight in extreme heat and their toughness and hardiness are beyond all admiration.
There are clearly shortfalls in the vehicle fleet, and on too many occasions soldiers are being forced to use them for missions, and in tactical situations, for which they were not designed. It is, for example, sad beyond words that the late commanding officer of the 1st Battalion the Welsh Guards had to hitch a lift on a logistics convoy in order to visit his own men on operations. The real problem is that there are simply not enough soldiers to carry out the mission set by the Government: to hold, clear and build; and further, to sustain a more vigorous counter-insurgency that depends on agility and surprise.
If the Government do not put in more troops, the mission could fail. However, I want to make it plain to the House that the failure would most definitely not be caused by a lack of guts and skill on the part of Tommy Atkins with his rifle and bayonet. I want the Minister, the House and the country to understand that the soldiers in Afghanistan do feel let down by a lack of helicopters and manpower, which obviously limits their abilities and opportunities for movement and assault. As a result of those two factors, they cannot be as tactically agile as they would like, and are thus forced into an inappropriate use of vehicles and tactical procedures that inevitably puts them at maximum, rather than minimum, risk of casualties.
Let us be clear: the soldiers feel let down not by the nation, but by the Government, and by a clearly weak and ineffective leadership in the Ministry of Defence. We in the House should be collectively ashamed that the finest army in the world is fighting in the most inhospitable, extreme and dangerous environment, under-resourced for an entirely valid and viable mission by a Government whose actions in these matters too often seem largely beyond parody.
That was a disgraceful contribution. To suggest to those whose grief is raw, who are suffering, whose sobs we heard from the town of Wootton Bassett, that there was some alternative, some other way—that if another Government had been in power, or if there had been a different configuration here or there, their loved ones would not have died—is a cruel and callous deception.
To understand the Taliban, I suggest that we look at the works of James Fergusson, who recently gave evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee. He talked about his conversation with a high-ranking member of the Taliban, who said to him, “I have three children, aged two, five and six, but I never see them; I don’t want to see them, because if I saw them I would start to love them, and they would love me. The loss would be greater when I die.” James Fergusson said to the Taliban leader, “Do you want to die?” He replied, “Of course I want to die. That is my dearest wish. I want to die like my father died against the Russians, like my great grandfather died, and like his father died. They died fighting the Ferengi in a jihad. I hope it is the way my sons die as well.”
It is a myth that we are fighting a war against a finite force. The Taliban will renew themselves virtually infinitely. Every death of a civilian—there have been thousands—is a defeat for us and a recruiting agent for the Taliban. Before Helmand, I supported the invasion, as other Members did, in 2001. I thought at the time that there was no chance of succeeding on drugs, and we have not done so. Despite spending hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, the drug production is the same as it was—it was higher a few years before that. There are areas that are now free of poppy growing, but they are used for growing cannabis. We have seen the hugely corrupting drugs industry flowering there, with the result that the price of heroin on the streets of London is cheaper than it has ever been.
When the bullets stop firing, who will move in? It will be the Afghan police. Why do we delude ourselves about that group? They are mostly Uzbeks, and there was evidence from Reuters last week, from the Helmand village of Pankela, that the elders had got together and said, “If you move out and the Afghan police move in, we will join the Taliban.” The reason for that is not just that they are not paid, or that they are deeply corrupt. According to evidence given to the Select Committee, 60 per cent. of them are addicted to heroin, and many others are dealing in heroin in order to earn their money. They routinely extort from the local population. The main objection in the village of Pankela, however, was to the army’s use of “bacha bazi”, a horrible form of child sexual exploitation. Pre-pubescent boys are kidnapped, kept in the police compound and raped by the police. That is the ugly, awful reality of what we are offering to Afghanistan.
A splendid book is about to be published. It is by Malalai Joya, who was the youngest member of the Afghan Parliament. She was suspended after attacking the warlords in her first speech because she regarded them as being on a par with the Taliban. She has won many awards, and has said that human rights are worse in Karzai’s Afghanistan than they were under the Taliban. We should also consider President Karzai’s record. He refused to pardon a young man who had been found guilty of accessing a document about women’s human rights on the internet—that man is in jail for 20 years—but freely pardoned a gang of thugs who had gang-raped a 13-year-old girl. He has approved a policy of permitting, and making legal, marital rape.
It is incredible that we do not see the reality. We owe the troops a debt of gratitude. We owe it to them to tell the truth here, rather than dealing with peripheral issues. Many of the issues that we have talked about today will make no difference. Helicopters might produce even worse casualties. There is no easy solution. The reason for our casualties in Helmand province is our presence there. Before we went into Helmand in 2006, only seven of our soldiers had died, five of them in accidents. Our presence there was a magnet, dragging in the Taliban. It multiplied their numbers, because we are the Ferengi, and they want to fight a jihad against us. Unless we know the basic reason why this is going on, we will fail our troops in the battle.
Something that we have previously discussed at some length—we have not discussed it today, but perhaps we should—is the staggering amount of aid that we have poured into the country: $25 billion. The Select Committee was told that 20 per cent. of it might have reached its intended recipients. For every British soldier who dies, there is a new millionaire in Kabul. Many of the new millionaires who grow rich on the drug trade, the corruption and the money that we have poured in are relatives of President Karzai, including his brother.
There have been improvements in women’s and girls’ education, but the truth is that, despite all the aid that has been poured in, Afghanistan still has the world’s third highest child mortality rate and second highest maternity mortality rate, because the country is endemically corrupt. Our aims are not attainable. I believe that all the prospects are dreadful—awful. We can continue what we are doing now. We can pour in troops, which will mean more targets and more deaths. It will be absolutely futile. It will make us good, as politicians, but we are here, 1,000 miles away from the heat, suffering and danger of the battlefield.
We have a collective responsibility. We have deceived ourselves, certainly since 2006, and we have given our soldiers an unattainable objective—several unattainable objectives. We cannot win on drugs, we cannot win on human rights, and we cannot do anything about the corruption. The warlords have become worse because Americans have poured billions of dollars into their pockets.
We have a number of possible options. One is to continue as at present, in which case the misery will go on and the coffins will carry on coming home, and we might well reach the same point as the Americans did in Vietnam when popular opinion would no longer accept the situation and the Americans ran away in panic from Saigon. We might leave in those circumstances. That would be the worst possibility, because our allies in Afghanistan who are working with us now would be slaughtered. The other, more hopeful, possibility is that we fix an exit date, as Canada has already done. In that case, we can look to having an exit strategy, and not to victory—not to more helicopters or more troops, but to finding a way of extricating ourselves. It will happen in the end. There must be some deal that can be done. It is not going to be easy, and we are not going to produce a Hampshire in Afghanistan, but this is the only practical way of escaping from the terrible situation we are in at present.
The American General McChrystal has talked about two things that have never been mentioned before: the exit strategy and defeat. We must start believing in the possibility of defeat because, sadly, unless there is a change of mind by all the parties in this House, and political muscle behind new thinking—
Order. I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman’s time is up.
The next speaker in the debate will be subject to the eight-minute limit, but in view of the substantial number of Members still seeking to catch my eye, thereafter the time limit for each speech will be reduced to six minutes—and I simply say in the spirit of encouragement to hon. and right hon. Members that if they are able to speak even more briefly than that, that will aid the House as a whole.
I shall do my best to stick to six minutes, Mr. Speaker.
I profoundly respect the views of the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), but I also profoundly disagree with them. He made the same points in relation to Iraq, and I think that he was wrong in relation to Iraq. In Iraq, we have seen what is not at all a comfortable country emerging out of darkness, and we have seen the success in transferring to local security people a job that was previously taken on by the Americans and the British. We have seen Iraqis taking a degree of pride from their success in reducing, although not eliminating, the corruption, violence, bombs and sectarianism in that country. I believe that we ought to express the hope that the same can be achieved in Afghanistan. Indeed, it is essential that we work towards that.
I agree with the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt) that the arguments need to be better made and to be spread around in the pubs and clubs of this country, because we are tending to lose the notion that our troops need to be in Afghanistan. I am sure that they do need to be there, because of the instability of that general region and the fact that there is a link between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and another direct link from Pakistan—and increasingly from Afghanistan—to those communities in this country. We must also remember that Pakistan is nuclear-armed, and the fact that there is now a total threat to this country as a result of the instability of that region means that we have to continue with this battle and win it. The alternative of withdrawal is not one that we should contemplate.
The general aims of the comprehensive approach are very laudable, and I pay tribute to the Departments of Government, which never used to work together and have never liked the notion of doing so to the extent that they are trying to do now. They are still struggling, particularly in Whitehall. On the ground, the comprehensive approach is much better appreciated and much better strived for than in Whitehall. There needs to be better training and better working together here, but overall the comprehensive approach is the only way forward.
I feel that it is absolutely essential to support this mission in Afghanistan—the entire country needs to support it—but support means certain things. It means giving our armed forces and the other components of the comprehensive approach the equipment that they need. More helicopters are needed in the region—it is not just our armed forces that need them—but helicopters themselves are not enough. The Defence Committee’s report today brought out the fact that helicopters require manpower, training and support, so just producing helicopters will not solve the problem. Of those four things, manpower is the most under pressure at the moment. We also need more uniform helicopters. There are lots of Chinooks of many different types, and the complication and expense of dealing with an imperfect and non-uniform fleet are extremely difficult for the Ministry of Defence. We need better vehicles. I hope that others will talk about that, because some of the vehicles in theatre are having to be withdrawn. We also need a better, more up-to-date air bridge, so that our troops do not have to wait in appalling conditions in order to take advantage of their leave. So we need more and better equipment.
We also need people. Reference has been made to the 2,000 troops that I understand were asked for in recent weeks. This morning, I tried to get out of the Prime Minister whether that was true, but I did not manage it. The shadow Secretary of State got it exactly right; we need troops not only to take ground, but to hold the ground that they have taken and to build on it. If we have too few troops to hold and to build, we risk unnecessarily the lives of the soldiers who were used to take the ground. We need a significantly larger pool of troops in our armed forces to be available to go, without pressure, to Afghanistan.
The final thing that we need is the money to support this operation. On Monday, I asked the Secretary of State what the Chancellor of the Exchequer meant when he said that our armed forces would not be short of money. I was told that it was established by the increase in the expected urgent operational requirements money that was announced on that day that the Treasury meant what it said. However, the UOR money for this year is capped at about £735 million, whereas last year’s cap was at more than £1 billion. So, there has been a decrease in that money, and that is not because the threats have reduced or because the urgency has reduced; it is because the available money has reduced. I do not think that that is the right way to treat our troops.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), and I wish to congratulate him on his Committee’s report. When it comes to equipment it always becomes very difficult for those not closely involved, because there are always several sides to the story. Helicopters have been discussed, and one thing that struck me when we flew down in them on our visit to the area was how much they were resented by the local population—helicopters fly over their houses, so they find them incredibly intrusive. So people will have to go on the ground and we need to be realistic.
I wish to say a little about what the end game is likely to be, because one of a number of important comments made today related to the inclusion of Afghanistan and Pakistan in this. The Secretary of State indicated that greater co-operation is clearly taking place on the border, certainly on the one with Baluchestan. What is happening in Helmand reflects what is happening on the Pakistani side to make the border more secure. This will also be about the build-up of the Afghan national police and army. It is clear that we have been much more successful with the army than with the police, but we should be careful about the words we use. When we were in Afghanistan it was clear that people there referred to their policemen as soldiers and they referred to their soldiers as warriors. This is not the kind of police force that we are used to—it is much tougher, and at the moment it is still being recruited along tribal lines. Until there is a police force in Afghanistan that does not follow tribal lines, we will continue to have the sort of problems that have been described.
Afghan warfare is very different. The history of the country shows that no outside force has ever succeeded in conquering it. What is different this time is that foreign troops are there with the consent of the Government. Their writ may not travel far beyond the capital, but it is the beginning of a settlement. It will have to be seen in two distinct phases. We need to be careful when we talk about the Taliban: there are Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban and central Asian Taliban, and then there is al-Qaeda, and we are not entirely sure where they are from. There are also small pockets of 100 or so insurgents, so we need to be careful about language. Even in Helmand, when they talk about foreign Taliban, they may mean Afghan Taliban from a different province.
We need a military presence that the Taliban—the insurgents, whoever they are—know will stay and fight, not pack its bags and leave. Then will come the point at which we have to bring those people into the political process. The Afghan way of warfare does not mean winning on the battlefield, but by defection. What years of history have taught Afghans is to wait and see which is the winning side—and that is the side to join. That is how we have brought warlords into the process, and that is what the long-term strategy for our military presence should be.
We have to be very forceful on the military end, but negotiate to bring people into the process. The elections in the summer will be important in that, but we should be careful about thinking that the elections mean democracy per se. The voter registration and other processes will set the scene, but there is deep corruption in the country, and we should be honest about that. The corruption starts at the top, and the aid that comes in gets sliced all the way through. However, that is better than the alternative, and one of the most encouraging changes in terms of Government policy—I have visited three times in the past five years, and things have changed—was the DFID White Paper, which made the clear commitment that the Foreign Office and the MOD would work much more closely together when it came to international aid. Certainly, with the role of the senior representative in Helmand, Hugh Powell, who pulls together the international effort with our Departments’ efforts, we are moving in the right direction.
We must not give up. We must not say, “It’s so awful, there’s nothing we can do.” We owe it to our troops to pursue our strategy. These are the most crucial, and potentially most damaging, stages of the operation, and we have to ensure that the casualties were sustained for a reason worth fighting for.
Although I voted against the incursion into Afghanistan, that is an irrelevance today. We owe our allegiance to the men and women who are in harm’s way. We owe it to them to support them fully, in every possible way, including kit and so on.
I have heard it said that in warfare deaths are inevitable. That may be so, but the most disturbing and galling part of this current situation is that three quarters of recent deaths, so I am told, were avoidable. Had the Government provided adequate kit and equipment for the military—sufficient helicopters and properly armoured vehicles—many of these roadside deaths would not have occurred.
If that statistic is not bad enough, the situation is compounded by the lack of a clear military objective and strategy in Afghanistan. On the one hand, the Prime Minister says that he wants to draw down troops after the Afghan elections, but on the other, the military top brass say that they want an extra 2,000 troops. What are we to make of those conflicting statements?
I have also heard it said that the conflict is about bringing democracy to Afghanistan, but the country has never been a democracy. It has been a tribal society for centuries and I do not think that it is possible to impose a democratic system on it.
We owe the troops a definite duty of care in every way possible. The military say, “More boots on the ground, more bodies in bags.” That may be crude, but that is how they talk. Some strategists argue that a surge of new troops provides more of a target, and the lesson from Northern Ireland is that it is better to use more helicopters. As has been noted, the Americans learned in Vietnam that multiple casualties turned public opinion against them, and I hope that we never reach that stage.
Force protection equals duty of care to soldiers. The diary of a young platoon commander in the Welsh Guards was published recently. Lieutenant Mark Evison, 26, wrote:
“I have a lack of radios, water, food and medical equipment. This, with manpower, is what these missions lack. It is disgraceful to send a platoon to a very dangerous area with two weeks’ water and food and one team medics’ pack. Injuries will be sustained which I will not be able to treat and deaths could occur which could have been stopped. We are walking on a tightrope and from what it seems here are likely to fall unless drastic measures are undertaken.”
That brave young man died in May.
We have also heard of the recent coroner’s report into the death of Corporal Mark Wright. The coroner said that there were three main reasons for his death, two of them being a lack of lighter helicopters fitted with a winch that could have pulled the troops away and the administrative delay in sending a suitable helicopter.
Ultimately, the only way to get our troops out is to arm and train the Afghan national army properly, but the problem is that leaders are in short supply. Combat units report shortages in about 40 or 50 per cent. of the equipment that they require, so things are not going well in that regard, either.
The hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) spoke about the Taliban regrouping and about the flourishing heroin trade. He said that Britain was backing a Government full of corrupt practices, while too many ordinary Afghans are not seeing any reconstruction at all. We need to look at the military objectives and the immediate military strategies if we are to keep public opinion and the House informed. That is going ahead now in Washington, and the same thing needs to happen here as well. Many military commanders, and the families of front-line troops, are not convinced that the best strategies are being pursued. That needs to be addressed very swiftly.
However, what the Prime Minister said this week is surely an admission of the fact that the troops are not adequately equipped. Three quarters of the deaths in Afghanistan have happened because of roadside bombs. It is not a new tactic: it was known and probably expected, so why are the heavy armoured vehicles being ordered only now? How many more brave men and women have to die before the equipment is delivered?
There have been loud calls to discontinue the use of the Snatch vehicle in some operational theatres. Why is it only now that the Prime Minister has announced this ordering of equipment? The same is true of helicopters. I will not go into the sterile debate that we had earlier this week, but it is a big issue.
I was in Basra and Baghdad a few years ago and I know that helicopters are much more effective than vehicles that have to travel on dangerous roads. We need to concentrate, as the Americans are doing, on force protection. I hope that the UK will do likewise. Commanders in the field protect their troops, and I hope that the Government will have drastic rethink of their current strategy and objectives. They must keep this place—and, crucially, the public, informed.
As a parent, I find it extremely distressing to see photographs of the young men who have died in the conflict in Afghanistan. Many are so young: I find it hard to come to terms with the death of an 18-year-old barely out of school.
Parents and families have taken solace from the fact that their sons have given their lives courageously in the service of this country, and I share that view wholeheartedly. When those young men signed up for military service, they signed up to the compact under which they pledged their lives to the service of this country. However, there are two sides to that compact; we are the other side. We pledge to do all that we can to keep them out of harm’s way, and to ensure that they are treated properly when injured and that their families are cherished if they sacrifice their lives. Many statements have been made today about the way in which we are fulfilling that compact, and it is important that the Government consider those messages seriously.
Another element of that compact is that we do not send our young men into unnecessary and ill-judged wars that cannot be won. I believe that the Government have failed that critical element of the military compact. This is an unnecessary and ill-judged war that cannot be won. After eight years, it is becoming increasingly difficult to answer the question, “Why do we need this war?” It was a reaction to 9/11, started with a failed bombing campaign and led inevitably to invasion. The objective was to destroy al-Qaeda, but inevitably when the bombing strategy failed and we moved to invasion, we discovered what leaders of the British empire discovered in the 19th century and what the Russian’s discovered in the 20th century—that it is impossible to fight a successful war in this terrain. I must add that all those invasions claimed the consent of the people.
I believe that the strategy of destroying al-Qaeda flies in the face of all that we know and understand about modern terrorism, which does not need a fixed territorial base. As we have discovered, modern-day terrorists can be based as much in Leeds as in the mountains of Afghanistan itself. The attempts to evict al-Qaeda from Afghanistan have simply led to its wider dispersal across Pakistan, Somalia and terrorist cells deeper into western Europe. If the war aim was to destroy or remove the Taliban because they harbour al-Qaeda, it completely underestimated, as hon. Members have said, the complexity of the relationships within the Taliban and the scale and depth of support for them in the region, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
If the objective of the war was to tackle terrorism associated with al-Qaeda, a more effective alternative would have been to focus on states’ policing role in gaining intelligence on terrorist organisations and activities and in intervening to prevent terrorist strikes. As important is to negotiate with elements that might be attracted to support or harbour terrorists, to divide them wherever possible and to ensure that we gain some purchase on negotiating opportunities with the Taliban. Of course, an effective anti-terrorist strategy must ensure that no action is taken that mobilises support for terrorism, and must win the hearts and minds of potential recruits by addressing grievances. Far from addressing such a strategy, the war in Afghanistan is using resources on military action that should be used in the policing and prevention of terrorism. Far from isolating the Taliban, it has spread their influence into Pakistan, and far from dividing them, it has united Taliban elements into a cohesive fighting force. Far from winning hearts and minds, the war, as in Iraq, has become a rallying symbol for terrorist recruitment.
A tragedy is being played out in Afghanistan, and in our society too. The argument that we are tackling the drugs problem has been undermined today. Afghanistan is now the drug capital of the world. There is the argument that we are installing a democratic Government, but, as has been explained today, that Government are corrupt and considered illegitimate even by their own people—it is a Government of warlords oppressing their own people. As my hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) said, the argument about the oppression of women has been undermined by women in Afghanistan demonstrating against oppression that they say has actually been worse than under the Taliban.
We need to address this tragedy: the lives being lost, the families being destroyed, the immense human suffering. At some stage, the Government will have to face up to the need to negotiate a withdrawal. We need to request that other regional powers come to our aid in negotiating with all parties, including the Taliban, a constitutional settlement for the long-term future of Afghanistan. The strategy must involve conflict resolution, bring people together, and recognise their grievances and why they have taken up arms, as they see it, to protect their own country. It is also about developing an alternative terrorism strategy involving intelligence, policing and ensuring respect for the grievances that lead people to take up terrorist activity. The sooner we come to terms with that, the sooner we can end the suffering of the British and Afghani families who have been drawn into this tragic and desperate war.
The Government have a lot more to do to win the battle of hearts and minds, not just in Afghanistan, but in this country. I am pleased to say that in 30 minutes’ time, in Colchester, the commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade, Brigadier Chiswell, will be doing just that. He will have a briefing with more than 100 leading members of the local community, in what is being billed as a “Post Afghanistan Operational Presentation”. That is where I would be if it was not for this debate.
Aspects of this debate will be fed back to our troops in Afghanistan, particularly in Helmand province. Aspects of it will also be picked up by the families of those serving there, those who have served there and, particularly, the families of those who have lost loved ones. This time last year, as the Secretary of State for Defence will recall, it was soldiers from 16 Air Assault Brigade who were taking the brunt and losing lives. I visited Afghanistan twice last year, and I suspect that the morale there today is as it was a year ago—very upbeat, with people determined to get on with the job.
We in this country admire that professionalism. We sent troops to Afghanistan because it is in the interests of the civilised world that there is success there. I am delighted to say that tomorrow, to show that respect, the honorary freedom of the borough of Colchester will be bestowed on 16 Air Assault Brigade. I have every confidence that for the fourth time in 12 months, the High street will be packed with thousands of local people. Sadly, two of the occasions on which that respect was shown were military funerals, but there was an upbeat mood at the “welcome home” parade. On Saturday, the Colchester military festival will take place, and in excess of 20,000 people are expected. That is all part and parcel of winning hearts and minds in this country. Although I voted against the Iraq war, the Government are absolutely right in what they are doing in Afghanistan, and I support them 100 per cent. in that.
That said, I challenged the Prime Minister on a point on Monday. I heard the Foreign Secretary say today that there are 51 countries deployed in Afghanistan. What is not said is how few European countries have deployed troops to southern Afghanistan. Certainly none of the major European countries—“major” in terms of population and the size of their armed forces—has done so. If possible, we need to get our European allies on board more.
We will not go into the matter of helicopters—we have had that debate—but I urge the Secretary of State for Defence to look into getting more unmanned aerial vehicles. I am absolutely convinced that if we deployed more of them, our troops would be able to see what is happening, and hopefully could deal with some ambushes before they happen. Please, Secretary of State, let us have a lot more UAVs.
I believe that the Afghan people do, in the main, support what is going on. I have met representatives of the Helmand provincial council, including two lady council members who would never be allowed to hold office if the Taliban ran the country, and that is an important point.
I said that I was sure that messages from this debate will find their way to Afghanistan, but messages come back from the front line to families, too. Two days ago, I received a letter from a mother; I shall end with a quote from it, because I find it poignant, and because it confirms what I say about winning hearts and minds:
“Dear Mr Russell,
I hope you won’t mind me writing to you, but before a fall put an end to a planned visit to Colchester, I intended to lay flowers & a card at the garrison & somehow try to thank the people of the town for their support & generosity.
Why, I guess you are asking yourself? Well, last year my son, along with fourteen other Aussie soldiers, had the honour of training and serving alongside the 7 paras RHA, where they were later deployed together in Helmand.
On their return, the boys told us of the kindness and generosity shown to them, the most welcomed food parcels, cards and good wishes whilst in Colchester and Afghanistan.
So, from a group of Australian mums, we would like to extend our heartfelt thanks and eternal gratitude for not forgetting ‘our boys’ but including them in your thoughts during the harrowing months.
With kindest regards to you and the wonderful people of Colchester.
Maureen Cohen (Mrs.)”
That letter comes from New South Wales.
I returned this morning from Afghanistan, having in the past few days visited Camp Bastion, Kandahar, Lashkar Gah, Sangin, Kabul and a number of DFID-supported projects, and having met key politicians, including Governor Mangal in Helmand and the district governor in Sangin. In the short time available to me, I shall not be able to do justice to all the information that I gathered.
I also had the tremendous privilege of being able to attend the repatriation service at Camp Bastion for the eight soldiers who were killed. As the House might know, it was an extremely moving and very sad occasion, but the Army showed tremendous care and attention to detail in honouring the lives of those young men. Owing to the loss of life, it is essential that we continue to question our role in Afghanistan to be absolutely sure that we are doing the right thing. It is right to question, but it would be dreadfully wrong to conclude that we should not be in Afghanistan. It would be an absolute tragedy for us to walk out and abandon the people of Afghanistan at this point, because I learned, and received very up-to-date information suggesting that, things are moving forward positively in a number of areas.
We have to remember that, in a number of ways, Afghanistan is completely rebuilding not only its state but local government and every single service imaginable, so it has a long way to go. The information on the elections showed that registration was going better than had previously been thought, and there is hope that the result can be taken as the legitimate voice of the people. We will need to see whether that is the case, but the people in Kabul and in the provinces were hopeful.
There were also signs that the Afghan national army is improving. It has been able to take over and plan some operations itself, and to carry them out with support from the international forces. That is seen as a move in the right direction. Absolutely everyone, whether military personnel, politicians or civil servants, talked about the need for better governance at all levels, from the Cabinet to provincial councils and community development councils. In Kabul, there was an acknowledgement that the Cabinet around President Karzai was probably the best that there has ever been, so there was some concern about what would happen post-elections in August. Nevertheless, the fact that a wider group of people in Afghanistan now has the capacity to carry out ministerial roles is a good thing.
I received quite a lot of evidence from DFID about the effect of our aid. A lot of British Government aid goes, quite rightly in my view, to support the Afghan Government and, in particular, to pay the salaries of teachers, the police and other Government officials, because if Afghanistan is to have an independent future, it must have a properly functioning state that is seen to be legitimate by most of the population. It is absolutely essential that aid should support the state institutions as well as the local people.
As soon as we came out of the airport in Kabul, we saw lots of girls in their uniforms going to school. We have to make sure that here in the Chamber we give a balanced view about what is going on: not all girls are going to school, and they cannot go to school everywhere, but there has been a very big improvement on what was happening under the Taliban. It was amazing that we were able to have a meeting with the Sangin district governor, some of his officials, the police, representatives from the security forces and, critically, the provincial reconstruction team, which talked about how to improve the local clinic.
We should not take those advances for granted; we need to pay tribute to our armed forces for helping move forward the situation in Afghanistan, where some thought can now be given to governance. We also have to consider what still needs to be improved. We need to look particularly at the role of the United Nations and how there is still not enough co-ordination of the whole aid effort, to get maximum benefit for the people of Afghanistan.
I, too, had the privilege of visiting Helmand province recently, and I strongly echo what the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) has just said about the professionalism, commitment and bravery—and, indeed, hope—of the troops there. The fact is that there is greater hope in the country at the moment.
First, there has been the US surge—the extra American troops supporting our British troops contribute enormously to a sensible arrangement between the forces. Secondly, there has been a significant change in the attitude of the Pakistani army, Government and people. We therefore have the opportunity, for the first time in eight years, of having what is in effect a pincer movement, from the north in Afghanistan and the south in Pakistan, against the Taliban troops who are along the border and the Durand line. The situation is definitely hopeful, and we should not underplay that.
In the short time available, I want to move on to Foreign and Commonwealth Office issues rather than military issues, because I have concerns about the FCO. First, I was dismayed to learn at a recent briefing by the interdepartmental committee on policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan that there is no Pashto speaker at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or Department for International Development in the area and only two Pashto speakers in the military in the area.
Once upon a time—perhaps in the days of the Malakand field force, about which Churchill wrote a book—the Foreign Office could produce people who could speak Pashto out of the top of its head, but the fact is that there are none now. Why is that the situation after eight years? I hope that the Defence Secretary will pass on that concern to his colleagues in the Foreign Office. There is a real problem; obviously, there has to be dialogue between the troops and DFID and FCO representatives and the local Afghan people. That should involve native speakers as far as possible. We know what happened in Iraq: it is very difficult to work all the time through interpreters.
My second point is about continuity of personnel. The contracts are negotiated individually by the FCO, but they often last only six months, and for those six months people work six weeks on and two weeks off. That means that one person may be doing one and a half jobs—not only their own job, but half of somebody else’s as well. There is therefore a very short time for people to get experience. Furthermore, because of the difficulties of the situation, more mature officials with families do not want to go to the country. The people on the ground are young, inexperienced, do not speak the language and are there for only a short time. Is that a sensible way to show our commitment to a foreign policy that is so decisive and such a priority in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office? I suggest not.
Thirdly, I want to return to a point mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). When I was in Afghanistan only two months ago, the UN commissioner was in despair about co-operation between the various organisations and national bodies: the European Union, the Americans, NATO and so forth. There are so many different people there, and so many acronyms that one has to deal with, that the situation is fantastically complicated. We must have some simplification and real co-ordination. I hope that General McChrystal might be able to impose some degree of greater co-ordination. However, I am afraid that the Americans are part of the problem because—according to the UN commissioner—they do not sufficiently tell other people what they are doing and what is happening.
Finally, over the past four or five years there has been mission creep. Other aspects have developed, absolutely desirable as they may be. The hon. Member for City of Durham referred to the young women in the streets of Kabul going to and from school in their hundreds. One’s heart leaps at that wonderful, marvellous sight, but the fact is that we are not ultimately there for that reason. We are there to pursue the Taliban and arrive at a point where we can withdraw because the Afghan Government, army, police and justice system are able to cope with the Taliban and the threat from al-Qaeda. That is why we must now, and at all times, concentrate on security and on helping our troops.
I would like to associate myself with the powerfully and eloquently expressed remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) about the families of our armed services, and indeed all those who serve in our armed services.
The answer that I received to my question in Monday’s Defence questions from the Minister for the Armed Forces convinced me that it will be a miracle if we ever win the war in Afghanistan. It could so easily end in yet another military defeat, perhaps not like in Iraq, where we were virtually shown the door, but through the potential—I stress that word—collapse of support in the United Kingdom as more and more body bags are returned home and people ask why. I believe that that question has been answered very adequately several times in this debate, so I do not intend to repeat the reasons.
My question to the Minister was:
“Is not one of the greatest threats to the security of Afghanistan the incompetence and abject failure of reconstruction projects which are imposing additional intolerable burdens on our security forces?”
“Health centres are open, schools have been rebuilt and girls are at school in Afghanistan today, and that simply was not the case in 2001. Yes, we face significant challenges, but I think that hon. Members understate the progress we are making if they deny that reality.”—[Official Report, 13 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 19.]
The reality is that both the ministry and the military are spinning like mad, making out that the United Kingdom is winning, just as they did when we were in Iraq, when in fact we are losing. The military and politicians alike blame the Government for underfunding defence, but when one considers the expense and waste in what can only be described as some disastrous procurement decisions, it is enough to make one weep.
Three ministries are involved in Afghanistan—the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence—and they appear to be failing to work together. Indeed, that must be the case if the three Secretaries of State have only one meeting a month. I can only question how security is to be achieved by the provision of health centres and schools—which will, in any case, be provided only in the town areas, not in the countryside. Health centres and schools are very desirable, but the first priority should surely be security so that people can go about their daily lives feeling relatively safe.
Yet another example of a total waste of money is the theme park with the Ferris wheel. Who can have allowed such a stupid decision to have been made, at not inconsiderable expense? Is the international community expected to pay the staff and running costs for ever? Unless the economy in Afghanistan is developed with local people playing a full part, it will most certainly have to continue to do so. Coupled with that, the desire to turn the fragmented tribal nation that is Afghanistan into a democracy greater than the one that we experience here in the United Kingdom is surely a mission beyond reality, not least because of the high levels of corruption, including at the highest level in government.
The international security assistance force and Afghan national army forces can hold the cities and towns—some only just—but the countryside can never be held in the foreseeable future while the rural population continue to be bombed and shot at. They have precious few benefits and certainly no peace or security, and for many years ahead the Taliban will be prepared to evaporate from and reappear at will in that community, from which they are of course indistinguishable to non-Afghans.
One way in which the hearts and minds of the rural population could be won is through the creation of good communications—in other words, a road and bridge network that would allow the movement of goods and thereby encourage trading and the development of markets and businesses. That, in turn, would enhance stability, because people have a vested interest in peace and security.
If one studies the history of any nation, one sees that the greatest progress comes about when there are boom times, with the population in work, fed and housed. A good communications and transport infrastructure is an essential element of that. Schools and hospitals follow when a profitable business base has been developed to support those ventures in both rural areas and towns. We are surely putting the cart before the horse by not focusing on construction projects, which would bring in their wake enhanced security.
I agree with much of what my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) said about the lack of co-ordination between Government Departments here in Whitehall. It has become axiomatic that Whitehall is not on a war footing, as it should be. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) said about the complexity that we have created for ourselves, particularly between the EU and NATO. Everybody knows that that arrangement does not work and has to be sorted out on the ground in spite of institutional conflicts.
That underlines the fact that, although I have the greatest respect for the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid), the original deployment on Operation Herrick IV in 2006 will prove to be one of the most ill-judged and ill-conceived military deployments of modern decades. That is not because of what he said or did not say at the time, but it is widely known and has been confirmed on the public record to the Defence Committee by Brigadier Ed Butler that the whole operation was artificially capped by the Treasury at 3,150 men and a cost of £1.5 billion, a sum that was meant to last over three years. That initial strategy was quickly diverted by political pressures into the platoon house strategy and into defending far too many forward operating bases with far too few troops and—the ubiquitous subject—far too few helicopters.
I, too, stand in great admiration of Ed Butler for his courage and skills, and for the kind words that he said about me to the Committee, but on this one he is wrong. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the force configuration was given to us by the chiefs of staff. My job was to ensure that we got the money necessary for the configuration that they requested. He may say in retrospect that they got it wrong, but I can assure him that that configuration was not cut, limited or reduced by the Treasury.
I have to accept the assurance that the right hon. Gentleman has given, even though we have conflicting testimony. However, we have wonderful armed forces in this country, who tend to put the best complexion on what they are being asked to do; they tend to give the optimistic view. I have an eye-witness account of the final Cabinet Committee meeting that signed off the deployment. A row was expected, but it never took place. We know that the deployment was driven ultimately by the desire to showcase Helmand as the British province that would lead the way as an example to the rest of Afghanistan. That has lamentably not been the case. We are finding ourselves in an Iraq situation, whereby we depend on American reinforcements to bail us out of circumstances, which we have neither the capacity nor the military will to pursue on our own.
We need to be realistic about the way in which the campaign is developing. Between September and December 2007, there were 75 improvised explosive device attacks on NATO forces. In the same period the next year, there were 180 such attacks. This year, there were 361 attacks in March, 407 in April, 465 in May and 736 in June. The dramatic rise in casualties was inevitable in those circumstances. I respect those who say that a rise in casualties was inevitable, given that there is currently a big push forward, which is being resisted.
However, we are in the early stages of a new Afghan strategy. President Obama, for good or ill, has decided to make Afghanistan rather than Iraq his political priority. I believe that that is directed more by electoral and politically correct UN-sanctioned considerations rather than a more realistic campaign. It became clear to me as soon as I rejoined the Select Committee in 2006 that the problems in Iraq would be far easier to resolve and that Afghanistan would be a much harder nut to crack. As the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) said, we are still trying to turn Afghanistan into a fully functioning state. That is a tall order for a country that has hardly ever been such—certainly not in living memory. At least Iraq had been a country and feels like a nation. Afghanistan is made up of many nations, which have historically been at war with each other.
However, we have a new strategy under General McChrystal of primarily defending civilians and putting in far more troops, but it is too soon to say what will happen. I find myself—somewhat uncomfortably—agreeing with the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) and the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who start from a completely different premise from me. I fear that their pessimism may be vindicated, but it is too soon for the House to decide or form a judgment about whether the new McChrystal strategy will succeed. However, we will know in a few short months—soon after the elections in August and by the time the House sits again in the autumn.
At that time, neither the House nor Ministers should depend on yet more military advice—it is not right just to ask for more military advice until a politically convenient answer is given. The politicians must take responsibility for a proper judgment call on whether it is worth continuing to pursue a strategy that already appears to be in some trouble. Perhaps we will need to revert to a much more limited objective. Perhaps the offensive will buy us the space in which to develop a much more limited strategy. We will know in a few short months the judgments that we are required to make.
It is a pleasure to help to conclude this debate. However, I am sad that it has taken the number of deaths that it has for the Government to recognise the importance of having these debates. We are at war, and we should have these debates on a quarterly basis, rather than being forced to have them in this manner.
If any Member wants to get an idea of how committed our troops are, they should go to RAF Brize Norton just before the take-off of one of the TriStars that take our valiant troops out to Afghanistan and see the worry and the anxiety on the faces of their families as they give them their final embraces before saying goodbye to those departing soldiers who are doing such a brave job for Great Britain.
I have just come back from Afghanistan, where I got a first-hand overview of what is happening in Operation Panther’s Claw. Again, I underline the bravery of our troops who are committed out there. My question was: what happens when the bullets stop flying? What happens when the Babaji area is cleared? Not one senior officer had any idea what the plan was to take over, reconstruct, build and help with local governance. That is absolutely appalling.
The Government must wake up and understand, if they believe in this mantra of “clear, hold and build”, that at the moment all we are doing is clearing and a little bit of holding. However, absolutely no building will take place if the general in Kandahar in charge of regional command south is not aware of what the reconstruction plan is. [Interruption.] I see the Secretary of State grimacing. I invite him to intervene and say what the plan is. Tell us what is going on. He cannot.
If the Secretary of State has an idea of what is going on, he should inform his troops, because they do not know. That is what they told us—that is exactly what happened.
Let us look at the figures. Our MOD budget for Afghanistan is £2.7 billion, while the DFID budget is £207 million—these are 2008 figures. The difference is almost tenfold. There is no way that we can go in and clear and hold and then expect to build if there is a tenfold difference between what we are spending on reconstruction and development and what we are spending on security. That money comes from DFID’s budget of £7 billion, but that is aside from the myriad other funds that go into Afghanistan, through the EU, the United States Agency for International Development, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Vital co-ordination is required, which needs to be tied in with what we are doing on the ground, so that we have a plan when the bullets stop flying in places such as Babaji.
The other aspect that needs to be underlined is the importance of the Afghan national army. Training is progressing, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) said two days ago, only 8 per cent. of the Afghan armed forces are based in Helmand, which compares with the fact that 40 per cent. of the fighting in Afghanistan is taking place in that province. Why are the Afghans not doing more? My right hon. Friend made that point, and by the next day the Prime Minister was on the front page of The Guardian claiming to be demanding that President Karzai send in more troops. I am glad that the Prime Minister is waking up to the cause, but it is a shame that he cannot admit where he got the information from.
There is no time to focus on the economic issues; I would just like to stress how useful it would be to complete a 50-km railway line from Spin Boldak to Kandahar. That would allow markets to develop and allow people to move away from the poppy trade.
I would like to end on a tribute to a friend and Army colleague, Colonel Rupert Thorneloe. I have just come from his funeral. He was riding in the front passenger seat of a Viking on 1 July and was killed instantly by an IED, along with Trooper Joshua Hammond. Colonel Thorneloe wanted to see the lay of the land, but there were no helicopters, so he had to jump on a convoy that was taking “replen” to the 2nd Battalion. He leaves behind Sally, his wife, and Hannah and Sophie, his two daughters.
I highlight Rupert Thorneloe not because he is an officer, but because he was a friend. We met at Sandhurst and have been friends since. It is a sombre occasion to hear the names of the fallen read out at Prime Minister’s questions, but it is now a regular event. The reading out of the names of fallen Britons in the battles of Afghanistan is a moving ritual, but there is an emotional distance for us here, where we can secure ourselves away from the horror that a family has to go through when confronted with the news, either on television or in the Chamber, that someone has died. We feel for that family here—for their loss and their emptiness—but unless we know the person or the family personally, we choose to move on, perhaps deliberately, in order not to dwell on the circumstances or the tragic consequences for those who have to live with the memories.
More than 50 regimental colours and battle honours line the walls of the Guards chapel at Wellington barracks. They carry the scars of hundreds of years of campaigns. Each one is weathered and faded, hanging motionless but shouting out a thousand stories of bravery by the soldiers who followed it into battle. They served as a fitting backdrop to the brand new Union Jack that covered Colonel Rupert Thorneloe’s coffin, which was carried by eight Guardsmen in complete silence, other than the sound of their boots marching in step. And so tributes were paid, a life was celebrated and a death mourned. He was a brave soldier, and a quiet, intelligent and compassionate man. He was devoted to his wife, Sally, and to his daughters, Hannah and Sophie.
Having known Rupert Thorneloe, I have dwelt on his death, and consequently on the sacrifices that he and others have made. I have made it my business to try to understand what is happening in Afghanistan, which is not so much a nation as a land mass occupied by an incredible mixture of cultures, ideas, languages and peoples who have rarely been united in the past 1,000 years other than when forced to come together to fend off an aggressor on their own land.
I urge the Prime Minister to rethink our objectives in Afghanistan and what we are trying to achieve there, and to provide all the support and resources necessary not only to provide security but to enable the Afghans to stand on their own feet and finally to allow our troops to come home.
I am confident in saying that, for all of us in this House, the sight of flag-draped coffins carrying those who have died in the service of their country back to our shores is a reminder that the death of every serviceman and servicewoman is a personal tragedy that leaves a permanent hole in the lives of those who loved them. Likewise, every limb lost and every disabling injury represents a life changed for ever. It is not least because of these sacrifices that we have a duty to ensure at all times that we, the politicians, get the policy right.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) began this debate by talking about the fact that we are in Afghanistan out of necessity, not choice. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) reminded us that we are there as a legal requirement as part of our treaty obligations when article 5 of the NATO treaty has been invoked. That is not pointed out often enough when we discuss Afghanistan.
We are in Afghanistan primarily for reasons of our national security. It has been pointed out frequently and correctly in this debate that Afghanistan was the place where the 9/11 attacks were hatched and planned, and it would again be a place where that could happen, were we not to deny the space to those who did that planning. That is why we are there. There are many other laudable aims, some of which have been discussed this afternoon. It is wonderful when we can get Afghan girls back into school, and when we see the extension of human rights, but we are primarily there for reasons of national security. We need to remind the public of that if we are to maintain public support and the necessary resilience to see this conflict through.
It is sometimes difficult for us to express what we mean by winning in Afghanistan, but it is easy to describe what we mean by losing. Were we to lose, and to be forced out of Afghanistan against our will, it would be a shot in the arm for every jihadist globally. It would send out the signal that we did not have the moral fortitude to see through what we believe to be a national security emergency. It would suggest that NATO, in its first great challenge since the end of the cold war, did not have what it takes to see a difficult challenge through.
The countries that have rightly been identified today as not pulling their weight and not engaging in proper burden sharing in Afghanistan might like to reflect on what the collapse of NATO would mean. Those countries that have failed to make the 2 per cent. of GDP cut in respect of their defence spending might want to reflect on the effect that a world with an isolationist United States might have on their security. I hope that those in many capitals—not least the capitals of the European NATO member states—are reflecting on what life might look like if NATO were to start to fall apart.
When it comes to what we mean by winning, we have to stand back and recognise that this is a geopolitical struggle. The reason why we can define what we mean by winning is that we want to see a stable Afghanistan, able to manage its own internal and external security to a degree that stops interference from outside powers and allows the country to resist the terror bases and the training camps that were there before. That is what success means in Afghanistan. We are not trying to apply, or we should not be trying to apply, a Jeffersonian democracy or a western European ethos to a broken 13th century state—and certainly not within a decade. Those are unrealistic aims that are likely only to disappoint public opinion in the UK and to frustrate those in Afghanistan who are finding it difficult to build on the ground.
What we need to see, as has been regularly pointed out in this debate, is a strengthening of the Afghan national army, a nurturing and then a strengthening of the Afghan national police and the development of a rule of law in which there is some semblance of the fact that the governing and the governed are being treated in a similar way. That should eventually lead to the concept of rights, which will be necessary if we are to see any sort of democratic structure in the future.
Of course no one believes that we can have a purely military victory in Afghanistan. As has been pointed out, we will have to deal with those who are reconcilable, even from among those who may have fought against us in the past, and we may have to recognise that some will be irreconcilable—and the only way to deal with them will be in a military fashion. Much as we would like everybody to be reasonable, we need to recognise that some will be utterly unreasonable; they have chosen to confront us, so we will have no option but to confront them in due course.
One aspect that has moved on, and which is enormously positive in comparison with the position in some of our previous debates, is that we now recognise that Afghanistan and Pakistan have to be dealt with as a single entity—a single issue. From the Foreign Secretary’s speech onwards today, there has been a realisation in the House that that is where we need to go. We must give Pakistan every support we possibly can financially, politically and militarily, because a collapse in Pakistan would make what we want to see in the region utterly impossible. If we think we have problems with a broken state such as Afghanistan, we should try a broken Pakistan nuclearly armed and with a vastly greater population.
Pakistan already has deep-rooted political problems and very deep-seated economic problems. It has problems with its relationship with India—the situation is still very tense—which causes the country to keep a large proportion of its armed forces facing in that direction. Now we are asking Pakistan to do more in the north-west, which is a tall order. Other countries in the region and traditional allies of Pakistan should also ask what they can do to help on that particular front.
When we send our forces to war, we have two basic duties to fulfil. One is that we have to do everything possible to guarantee the success of the mission; and secondly, we have to do everything possible to minimise the risk to our armed forces in carrying out that mission. We need to have a clear strategy, as my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary mentioned at the outset, yet we sometimes have a lack of clarity about what it is that NATO, the UN, the US or Afghanistan are trying to do. It is sometimes not a question of whether we have a strategy, but of whether we have too many of them and whether they are, in fact, compatible with one other.
We also need a clear command structure. I think that the structure is improving, but it has been a problem in recent years. We need co-ordination between Government Departments here and agencies abroad, including in Afghanistan. As the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) mentioned, the relationship with the Afghan Government is rife with corruption. We are not seeing the NGOs going in and carrying out reconstruction. Indeed, I think we need to ask ourselves whether we have the capability in this country to carry out reconstruction in a hostile environment. If the answer is no, we have to do much more to create that capability and learn from what has been done elsewhere.
We must have better burden sharing among the allies, which is simply not happening, and we must have the equipment we need. Let us make no mistake: we are engaged in a crucial and historic struggle, so public trust is important for the resilience that we will need. The public must believe that they are being told the truth and given the full picture. My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks said at the outset that it would be better if we had regular updates or perhaps quarterly debates in the House, with the Government coming forward, even if it had to be in closed session, to enable Parliament to know exactly what was happening.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) pointed out that the Prime Minister has behaved, at best, in a very casual manner when it comes to keeping the House involved. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) said, there is an erosion of trust between Ministers and the public, and Ministers and the military, which is extremely unhealthy.
There is no doubt that the personal equipment that our armed forces are getting is immensely improved. If one talks to soldiers on the ground, they will say that their personal kit is much better than they have had before. That is to be welcomed—a lot of it came late in the day, but it is welcome that it is there. However, we still have a problem with armoured vehicles and helicopters, which are related issues. There is no way to guarantee the safety of our forces in a conflict zone—the public know that we cannot fight wars without casualties and fatalities, but they expect us to minimise the risk. Of course, helicopters are not a panacea—they are vulnerable themselves—but we must give our commanders the option of moving our men more by air, and not simply depending on movements by road, which signal to the Taliban what is coming, and make our forces more vulnerable.
Time and again in recent days, we have pointed out that the cut to the helicopter budget of £1.4 billion in 2004, in the middle of two wars, was a catastrophic decision. The Government were warned about the consequences, did not do anything to deal with the matter and are now playing catch-up. Worse, instead of admitting the mistakes, they are treating us to word games and distorting statistics. I sometimes wonder whether the Prime Minister has a pathological inability to admit that mistakes have been made. When he talked about a 60 per cent. increase in helicopter capacity over two years, he failed to point out that since we deployed properly to Helmand three years ago the number of troops has increased by 100 per cent. It does not take a genius to do the maths and work out what that means. Does he think that that fools anyone? Does he think our troops will not see through the spin being applied? Today’s Defence Committee report also pointed out future gaps in terms of helicopters.
The issue of troop numbers was also touched on briefly, and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex spoke with great clarity on the matter. The Opposition have not had a presentation from our military chiefs about increased numbers. However, there is a widespread understanding that 2,000 extra troops were sought, with an extra battalion to help to train the Afghan national army, and one for the Afghan national police. We have always said that more troops should be accompanied by proportionate and appropriate increases in resources. However, if the Prime Minister turned down a request for more men, which would have helped to speed up the training of the Afghan army and police, therefore enabling us to carry out our task and leave Afghanistan earlier, why was it refused? The British public have a right to know why the Prime Minister did not take the advice of the senior military.
Right at the beginning of the debate, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks said that we are fortunate that in a society without conscription, we have people courageous and committed enough to put their lives at risk voluntarily for the security of their country and their fellow citizens. They know their duty, and risk their lives carrying it out. We, too, have a duty to them. It is time that that duty was properly and fully carried out.
It was very important that we debated Afghanistan today, particularly with the losses that we have been suffering in recent days. I do not disagree that there is a need for regular debates: I arranged a briefing from the military on Tuesday, so that we could have a briefing before the recess. We shall try to ensure that we have debates as regularly as possible.
We all need to be focused on understanding what our people are doing in Afghanistan. I understand the importance of ensuring the widest possible cross-party support. With all the talk that there has rightly been about material support for our forces to do the job we ask them to do, let us not forget the need for moral support as well.
Our armed forces are the best of the best: professional, skilled, determined and courageous. As many Members of the House have today, I want to add my tribute to the fallen: their sacrifice must never be forgotten, and neither should we forget the sacrifice of those who return with life-changing injuries, whether physical or mental. They must and will receive the support that they need. We owe it to all those who have fallen, to those who have suffered, and to the entire nation, to explain why the sacrifice is being made.
As the Foreign Secretary has said, we are operating in Afghanistan to protect our national security. We are fighting the Taliban to prevent al-Qaeda, and the terrorists whom they bring, from returning to Afghanistan and threatening us directly. For Britain to be secure, Afghanistan needs to be secure. This is not just about the UK’s national security; 42 nations are taking part in one of the widest ever international coalitions, and it is about their national security too. The international community has a joint strategy for success, not just a military strategy but a comprehensive strategy for governance, development and reconstruction.
People ask—it has been asked again in the House today—why we are fighting in Afghanistan when al-Qaeda has relocated to Pakistan. Given that we defeated the Taliban in 2001, why are we still fighting them now in 2009? Those questions are understandable, but they misunderstand the situation. Al-Qaeda has relocated to the borderlands in Pakistan and it poses a direct threat to Pakistan and to wider international security, but it is not in Afghanistan, because we are in Afghanistan. If we allowed ungoverned space to exist in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda would take the opportunity to return. That is why, as the Foreign Secretary said earlier, our strategy is not on Afghanistan alone, but focuses on Pakistan as well. That is why in April the Prime Minster presented to the House—and published in a document—our overarching, comprehensive strategy to tackle terrorism in the region which is a direct threat to our national security.
We are fighting the Taliban now in Afghanistan because a Taliban return would give al-Qaeda greater freedom to operate: freedom to plan, direct or provide support for more terrorist attacks—as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox)—like those of 9/11 in New York and Washington, in Madrid, and here in London, among many others. And for the Afghan people, a Taliban return would mean a return to brutality, oppression, intolerance and violent extremism. In 2001, as part of the international coalition, we defeated the Taliban and cleared out al-Qaeda. We returned in significant numbers in 2006, and have increased our commitment since then, because they are back threatening the stability of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the region.
Let me turn to some of the issues that have been raised. Helicopters are important. I shall tell the House what I will do, but first I shall tell it what I will not do. I will not put Merlins into Afghanistan before they are ready—before the crews are trained and the blades, defensive suites and night vision are fitted. I will not put soldiers in the back of helicopters in a war zone when the crews and frames are not ready. [Interruption.] Some newspapers, and perhaps some Members, are suggesting that we can and should do that, but we cannot put Merlins in Afghanistan before December this year if we want a good, safe and capable force. We cannot bring that forward. I have talked to many people about whether we can, but we cannot.
Let me tell the House what I will do. I will, if necessary, bend people out of shape to ensure that the Lynx has all the necessary capability from this October, so that we do not have to withdraw it in the spring. I will consider again whether there is any way in which we can bring the eight useless Chinooks that we bought back in 1996 into service any more quickly. Our plan is to get additional Chinooks out there next summer, and if we can do it more quickly, we will. I will consider again whether we can squeeze more out of every frame that we have. When troops are in the field, I am going to satisfy myself that every single muscle is being flexed in every single part of our helicopter capability.
I saw what the Select Committee’s report said about the Puma upgrade and the defence industrial strategy. I must say to the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) and his Committee that I hope that that is not code for putting industry before our armed forces. Capability must come first. The Puma upgrade will go ahead. Given the resources that I have, that is the best way in which to deliver the capability that we need as quickly as possible.
Since 2006, we have increased the number of airframes available to commanders in Afghanistan by more than 60 per cent., and the number of helicopter hours, which commanders use to plan, by 84 per cent. Commanders on the ground in Afghanistan are clear that they have enough helicopters to meet the requirements of current operations, but they always want more, and I must, and will, continue to work flat out to try to deliver them everything we can.
On troop numbers, this is an international mission to which the UK is the second largest troop contributor. UK forces are doing a large part of the heavy lifting in Afghanistan, having provided the vast majority of international forces in the most difficult province in the country for the last three years. As the Chief of the General Staff intimated just yesterday, new boots do not need to be UK boots. This is a NATO operation, and we have increased our commitment as part of the surge to prepare for the elections, but so have others. There are 400 new Polish troops, 450 more Australians and more Spanish, Lithuanians, Romanians, Swedish and Germans—and, of course, thousands more from the USA.
We have debated troop numbers and options, and, as the Prime Minister clearly stated on Monday, we keep our force levels under constant review, depending on the operational requirement. We have the manpower we need for the current operations. We will review our commitment after the Afghan elections, on the advice of our commanders and in discussions with our allies.
Let me say a few words on Operation Panther’s Claw. As the Foreign Secretary said in opening the debate, the purpose of the operation is to provide the estimated 80,000 people in the Babaji area with sufficient security to allow the elections to take place. This requires clearing out the Taliban and preventing them from intimidating local people so they can live and vote in safety. All the reports I am receiving from theatre are that this is going to plan. ISAF now has a significant security presence in a previously ungoverned area. The insurgents are being hurt; we are taking out large numbers of insurgents, but that is not the measure of success. We need to win the people. Engagement with the local population is bearing fruit: the first outreach Shura was being held in the newly cleared area; priority development and governance and reconstruction projects are being identified; and polling stations are being planned. This is happening right behind the front line. There is significant momentum and we are pushing through the area and driving the enemy out, but the task is going to remain hard, and we should brace ourselves for further casualties. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House will want to provide our armed forces with the support they need, want and deserve as they continue to do the job.
We suffered the loss of a contract helicopter in the north of Helmand province and there were deaths as a result of that. I will write to the hon. Lady and give her more detail on it if she wants. I know that she often raises the issue of vehicles and that she has had a long-standing interest in the subject. People continue to say that there is a huge problem with vehicles. We have a suite of vehicles now, including Mastiff, Ridgback and Jackal. We also have the new tactical support vehicles—Wolfhound, Husky and Coyote—coming into province. It is cruel to pretend to those who have lost their lives that we will be able to stop our people dying by providing more helicopters or a suite of vehicles. Many Members have said that this afternoon, however. Even if we can get to the point where every single vehicle is available in every single location the length and breadth of the Helmand province for every operation, from time to time people will have to get out of those vehicles. They have to make contact with the people; they have to walk among them and win them over. That is dangerous work and it is cruel to pretend that we can remove the danger from the job that we ask our people to do.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of Afghanistan and Pakistan.