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Volume 498: debated on Monday 2 November 2009

8. What steps the Government have taken to respond to requests from military commanders for additional troops in Afghanistan made in 2009. (296688)

In April this year, after considering options in consultation with the service chiefs, we announced an uplift in force levels to 9,000 for the period of the election in Afghanistan. The Prime Minister confirmed on 14 October that we had agreed to maintain UK troops at that level beyond the election period.

We have also agreed in principle a new force level of 9,500, which will be put into effect subject to the following conditions: first, that the new Afghan Government bring forward the Afghan troops to be trained and to fight alongside our forces; secondly, that our commitment is part of an agreed approach and burden sharing across the international coalition; and thirdly, that military commanders are satisfied that the extra troops are properly equipped for what they are being asked to do.

In all, that means that, in principle, we have increased our troop numbers by about 1,500 in just over six months.

Does that increase mean that the Government are now complying fully with military advice on the correct level of troops to tackle the current tasks in Afghanistan?

The Secretary of State spoke of the requirement for the extra troops to be properly equipped. Is he saying, in effect, that he has received no offers of extra helicopters for Afghanistan?

I have received lots of offers of extra helicopters for Afghanistan. What I have not received is an offer for what was described over the weekend as the ability, for the sum of £7 million a month, of about 20 Chinooks to ferry our troops around.

That is what was said on the television by the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway), who is now remonstrating with me from a sedentary position. We do have, and we will assess, offers of helicopters for logistics and supplies. If any Member wants to encourage someone to put in a bid for a new contract in that regard, we shall be happy to evaluate it, but the idea that we can secure additional lift for our troops in the way that our nation was told we could at the weekend is total, complete and utter nonsense.

Will my right hon. Friend add a fourth condition to the three that he listed—that there should be substantial progress in the elimination of corruption at the centre in Afghanistan and in Kandahar province? Will he bear in mind that any further measures relating to presidential elections will be a pointless and dangerous exercise until that progress is made?

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is essential for the Afghan Government to address the issue of corruption and governance, and to reach out to the whole of the Afghan population as well.

9. What is his most recent assessment of the progress of military operations in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. (296689)

We continue to work with the Afghan national security forces and ISAF partners to bring security to the Afghan people. In Helmand, the Afghan Government and security forces now have an increasingly permanent presence in the population centres where it matters most, and progress in military operations ultimately contributes to the international civilian reconstruction and development effort.

Given the large and worrying number of people who say that they do not understand why our forces are in Afghanistan, does the Secretary of State acknowledge that there is a need to define the mission better, and to propagandise it?

I think we all need to share responsibility for that, and to help in any way we can. As I have said—and I do not think that any member of any of the three parties, including Back Benchers, disagrees with me—our presence in Afghanistan can be justified only by a threat to our national security, and the overwhelming importance that the region has for our national interests here in the United Kingdom.

Given my right hon. Friend’s acknowledgement of the importance of building civilian and military capacity across Pakistan, will he assure me that he is satisfied that the large and increasing number of civilians working in Afghanistan are provided with the appropriate level of security by private security companies and the Afghan army, and that it is of a standard with which our military commanders are also satisfied?

The level of threat in Afghanistan is a very real problem for civilians trying to operate in that country. There are, of course, circumstances in which private military companies can and do provide the necessary level of security, and our forces are more than happy not to have that burden themselves.